World War One’s impact on Scandinavia

In 1918, the first world war ended in Europe, and it had claimed millions of casualties, the war also changed the face of the European map from being dominated by three big empires in the East, to a Europe with new states such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Finland and The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (which before the War had been consisting of Serbia alone, but now included Montenegro, Slovenia and Croatia as well as Bosnia.)Although these developments and consequences of the First World War are fairly well-known, this paper will look at the impact of the first world war in Northern Europe, and by this we’re not talking about the impact it had on Germany or Poland, but on the three kingdoms Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and what became the republics Iceland and Finland.

Between 1800 and 1914 the map of Northern Europe and Scandinavia changed drastically, with the states of Norway appearing, and Finland shifting from being a part of Sweden to becoming an integrated part of the Russian Empire. In 1914, the independent kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden were all facing the question how to deal with the military conflict developing elsewhere in Europe. Scandinavia had over the course of the late nineteenth century grown more and more used to a certain element of imported goods to feed its populations. The Norwegian, Danish and Finnish Merchant navies were all heavily involved with the shopping of goods throughout the world. This meant that when the First World War broke out, the three Scandinavian kingdoms were faced with a problem of how to stay out of the war, and still maintain their economic interests. The three kingdoms Denmark, Sweden and Norway joined in a neutrality union, and attempted to maintain their neutrality throughout the conflict. This neutrality was not without complications, Norway and Denmark were heavily dependent on Britain and USA for most of its shipping orders, and to supply them with grain as well as being their main markets for some products. However, Denmark also faced another challenge, with a shared border with Germany, and a considerable Danish minority in the then German South Jutland, Denmark knew that it could not afford a repetition of the 1864 war against Prussia and Austria. Sweden, like Norway exported enormous amount of iron, steel and copper to Germany, which meant that these countries could not afford to cut its financial links with the German Empire. Sweden and Norway also shared borders with Russia, and had good economic links with the Romanov Empire. Norway could for example not afford to oppose Russia, as the Russian Pomor trade from Archangelsk kept the North Norwegian fishing villages alive through bringing grain to the Northern Norwegian counties who were unable to sustain themselves with corn, and the Russian traders bought some of the fish products which were produces along the coast of Troms and Finnmark County. With these important connections, Norway, Sweden and Denmark could not afford to go into the conflict on either side of the war, especially as the outcome of a war could have dramatic impact on the territories of these kingdoms, just like the Napoleonic wars had 100 years earlier. The Scandinavian kingdoms stayed neutral throughout the war, although external pressure caused Norway to lean more and more towards the British and American cause. This sympathy led to the mining of the Norwegian waters and a blockage of trade with Germany. Sweden on the other hand turned favourable to Germany b 1918, but this did not jeopardise the Swedish neutrality.

Even though the neutrality were maintained for all there kingdoms throughout the war, all the kingdoms experienced lack of resources, and increasing cost of living for the population and social unrest based on these things. The main impact of the First World War on Scandinavia did however come on the eastern and southern borders of it. Finland which since the Napoleonic war had been a part of the Russian Empire, were in 1914 drawn into the First World War against Germany. The Finnish navy and Merchant navy were damaged and its troops took part in the conflict on behalf of the Russian Empire. But as the war turned into revolution in Russia, the Finnish parliament first established a degree of extended autonomy in the spring of 1917, followed by full Independence in the fall of 1917. The Soviet takeover of Russian government initially was favourable towards an independent Finland, and the Finnish parliament declared it independent and elected a German Prince as its King. The outcome of the First World War in Europe, and the abdication of the German Emperor caused the German prince that was appointed king of Finland to withdraw, and the Finnish parliament declared the state a republic. Yet, the growth of Communism in Russia also impacted the working classes in Finland, and soon after the War a civil war broke out between the Whites (landowning farmers, educated middle class and the elite) and the Reds (the workers and landless farmers) this conflict resulted in open war and thousands of dead on both sided, and is still a taboo in Finnish society. The Finland soon became an internationally recognised state, and became a 1920 a member of the League of Nations.

When the war was over, a clause was added to the Treaty of Versailles, that Southern Jutland should be divided into two sections, which both should be allowed to vote over their future, to stay as a part of Germany, or to return to Denmark as they had been prior to 1864. The northern section of south Jutland, which had a Danish speaking majority, said yes to return to Denmark. Whereas in the southern section, although it contained the Danish speaking city of Flensburg, the majority vote were in favour of a continuous relationship with Germany. This created the current borders between Denmark and Germany. And still to this day, there is a German minority on the Danish side of the Denmark-Germany border, and a Danish minority on the German side of the same border.

The submarine attacks by German submarines on British and American ships lead to a massive destruction of the Norwegian Merchant Navy, and the loss of over 2000 civilian seamen, the loss of these ships gave the shipping companies the financial capacity to renew their fleet of ships, which would be instrumental in the battle against Nazism under the Second World War as it would help to deliver supplies to both the UK and the Soviet Union.

For Iceland, the years of War had given a slow economic growth as they could sell the fishing products to reasonable prices. Iceland regained its ‘independence’ in 1918. Iceland was with this a fully sovereign state which only shared its king with Denmark. Thus Scandinavia in 1918 had consisted of 5 different kingdoms, although the Finnish and Icelandic kingdoms did not survive long. Iceland became a republic as a consequence of the Second World War, and Finland following the German defeat in the First World War. Thus after the First World War, Scandinavia had, like much of Europe, seen its borders shift and new states appear. But most significantly did the Soviet Communism in Russia inspire the Socialist movements in Scandinavia which started years of social unrest leading up to the Second World War.


Norwegian Encyclopedia online, The History of Denmark,

Norwegian Encyclopedia online, World War One,

Norwegian Encyclopedia online, The History of Sweden,

Norwegian Encyclopedia online, Norwegian History from 1905-1939,

Wulfstan and his journey

In the late ninth century was communication routes in Europe not quite what they are today, ships were often the easiest way to get from a to b (provided a or b was somewhere near water). The sea was the highway throughout Europe, a way that transported people, goods, Gods, and stories. This was the case in the late ninth century when Alfred the Great of Wessex had two traders visiting his court, both telling stories about their journeys. The first and perhaps most famous was Othere, a Norwegian merchant who sailed from Northern Norway into the White Sea before returning to the Norwegian coast and sailing to the British Isles through Skiringsal and Hedeby. The second visitor who is perhaps not as famous, but who’s story is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon version of Orosius’s description of Europe.

The second traveller was Wulfstan, a presumably English or Flemish merchant who sailed into the Baltic sea from Hedeby and visited (if we are to believe his story) the Baltic region and told the story of the Ests that lived in the area that today lays between Gdansk and Kaliningrad. Yet the story from Wulfstan’s is not as easily understandable as that of Othere. Like Othere’s story does this text provide a geographical and ethnic account of the lands east of Hedeby. Wulfstand points out that there are many towns in this land, and each town has its own king, and between the different tribes and kings were there a great deal of warfare. Wulfstan notes that the land has plenty of honey and fish, and that mare milk is the drink of the rich, whereas the poor drink mead. He also notes that the people drink no Ale, this suggest a great difference from the lives of the Anglo-Saxons at Alfred’s court.

It has been suggested that these stories that was added into Orosius’s to increase the knowledge of the world surrounding the Anglo-Saxons, as a part of Alfred’s drive for the resurrection of knowledge. Although the food and the governmental system described by Wulfstan is a bit different from that found in Anglo-Saxon England, it is perhaps the burial and funeral costumes that are most different from those known in the Christian World. ‘When a man dies, he is put on display for a month or two [says Wulfstan] after that the dead man’s wealth is distributed in several piles some miles from the city, and the quickest riders in the land rise to take it. When all the wealth has been taken (distributed) the body is burned, until nothing is left. For if anyone finds a bone unburned then the finder would be fined a considerable amount.’ These observations suggest firstly that these practices were those that Wulfstan was not used to himself, for it is easier to point out the differences in a society than the similarities.

Furthermore does this suggest that the social, political and cultural system of the Ests were considerably different from that of the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons, but also that the Est society were a well-developed cultural unit that had its own religious and cultural ideas about how to deal with death and burials. In this context the society of the Ests is a frontier in the Anglo-Saxon world. Wulfstan’s journey also illustrates how the Anglo-Saxon court was linked to other European cultures through trade, and how different cultures in the 9th century could be. It also shows that the trade routes of the late middle ages, which was dominated by the Hanseatic league in the Baltic sea, already might existed in the Viking age, and that Denmark, with the city of Hedeby was the linking point between the Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, German, Norse, and Slavic areas of North Europe.

Wulfstan’s journey also gives, although not extensively, information about the lifestyle and livelihood of the Ests in the 9th century, a period from which the sources of this region are not extensive. So we need to work with what we got.

If you want to read more about the Journey of Wulstan then a recommended book is:

Trakadas, Athena: Englert Anton, Wulfstan’s voyage: the Baltic sea region in the early Viking age as seen from shipboard, (Oxford, 2008).

Norse Greenland: a lost Civilization

This month is Island month here on the W.U.hstry blog, and I’ve chosen to write about an island and a civilisation that fascinates me greatly. Not only because it is a civilisation that no longer exist, but also because of its relevance and importance in understanding the early medieval world, and the problems historians are facing when working with the period.

Greenland  is the island I have chosen, it is one of the biggest islands in the world, and have been the home to a civilization which played an important part in European trade links, and was the starting point for the first attempt to settle North America from Europe. Well, the first provable attempt, as there are several theories about Irish monks living in North America, and other less plausible theories such as contact between Egypt and America, but this is not the time, nor place to debate them.

When anyone is working on Norse Greenland, one is forced to work interdisciplinary as the written sources, which consist of a few letters, charters, Norwegian laws, and two sagas, do not give a full and complete picture of the Norse settlements in Greenland. The sources are for the most part written after the events themselves, and do therefore not explain the contemporary ideas, and attitudes within Greenland and within its wider cultural connections. Although there is Norse literature dealing with Greenland, most of it has survived in Denmark or in Iceland, so the local perspectives are very hard to see through the written sources. Therefore have most modern scholars also supported their work with Archaeology and the excavated material that have been found over the last centuries. Archaeology do not lie, so it is a very good way to find objective data, however, they cannot explain the ideas, thoughts and feelings of the Norse population in Greenland, so we cannot discard one or the other type of source. In fact, the best possible understanding of Greenland, its inhabitants and their life might possible be found through a comparative reading of the Norse settlements in Northern Norway, Iceland and other more peripheral regions of the Norse and Christian world, which were faced with climatic, ecological and nutritional changes over the later part of the middle ages.

In 985, sailed 25 ships from Iceland in direction Greenland, only 14 made it to Greenland, among these ships were Erik the Red, a farmer who was forced to leave Iceland due to his implication in a series of crimes. Another member of the group was a man who, according to the Saga of Greenlanders, was a Christian and who had chosen to follow Erik by his own free will. The same can be said about the majority of the settlers in Greenland, the came to the island by their own free will, and brought with them their own Norse culture and traditions. The first settlers arrived in what later became known as the Eastern Settlement, along the southern tip of Greenland, this area had great possibility for pasture farming, with sheep, goat and cows, and unlike on Iceland was the land still fresh and undisturbed by the hand of man. This agricultural possibility might have helped to encourage settlers to come to the island. However, Greenland did not only offer good pastures for sheep and cows, but the island had also an abundance of wild birds, seal, walrus, narwhals, polar fox and Ice bears, all which could be hunted and used in the production of export goods.

As suggested above, was there a Christian presence on Greenland already from the first settlement. This is furthermore supported by the finds of a church dating to the first years of the 11th century at Erik the red’s farm on Greenland. It is suggested in the sagas that Erik and other settlers still followed the traditional pagan beliefs  when they arrived in Greenland in the 980’s, but that there were a period of co habitation with the two faiths living side by side, until Greenland formally converted around 1000AD simultaneously with Iceland. It has been suggested by Jette Arneborg, that similarly to the Icelandic church building structure, was it the rich and powerful landowners on Greenland that controlled the Churches, their lands and income after the conversion. Greenland did not gain its own bishop until 1124, but it is clear that the dietary changes that the religious change brought with it, must have been followed as there seems to be an increase of marine protein in the diets of corpses found while excavating some settlements in Norse Greenland.

Life on Greenland was partly influenced by the need for imported goods such as iron and timber, and the value of goods such as furs, ivory and bones, but also the close proximity to the sea and contact with Native American cultures in North Canada. Although it seems that the climate and geography was favourable to pastoral farming during the first century of the settlement, are there elements suggesting that the climate slowly became worse during the following centuries, which lead to the ice cap on Greenland to grow, and farming a less and less favourable way of producing food. This shift in climate, and thus also diet, followed by the introduction of the Christian dietary rules stimulated a more marine diet for the Greenlanders. Sometime in the 12th or 13th century did the Norwegian king monopolise the trade between Greenland and Norway, which meant that farmers on Greenland could not freely import Iron, other metals, timber or grains, all elements that were vital for the survival of the Greenlandic civilization. However, the trade was not only one-sided, for Greenland represented an important source for Ivory, whale skin ropes and warm furs from ice bears and polar foxes. As the climate changed in the Northern hemisphere and it became colder, the continent started to become less and less interested in Greenlandic walrus ivory, these two factors made Greenland less financially interesting for the Norwegian king, and the traders he sent to deal with the Greenlanders. Almost simultaneously to this did the Black death hit Scandinavia, although Greenland was spared for the first wave of plague, Norway suffered an estimated population decline between 35 – 60%, this together with the reduced economic interests in Greenland, reduced the Norwegian king’s ability to equip expeditions to Greenland in the years to come.

Excavations in the Western and Eastern settlement of Norse Greenland suggest that the Western settlement was desserted in the late 14th century, whereas the Eastern were desserted by the Norse in the middle of the 15th century.

But why did the Norse culture and civilization in Greenland decline and become extinct? To this question are there many theories, but it is apparent that this decline happen at the same time as both Iceland and Northern Norway have a population decrease of between 30-60% due to plague, which suggest the possibility that the plague and other epidemics could have struck the Greenlandic society hard. However, another possibility might also be that with the climate going colder, and the soil in Greenland becoming less productive due to traditional farming techniques, the population migrated first from the less productive regions of Greenland to the more productive regions and settlements, and then when land became available in Iceland after the plague, they might have re-settled in Iceland for agricultural purposes, and thus returning the their ancestral home. However, this is just a theory, none can safely say what happened to the Greenlanders, as there no decisive evidence, but the relocation theory seems to have been the most plausible and is advocated by among other Niels Lynnerup and Jenne Arneborg. What is certain at least is that the Norse settlements on Greenland, which started in about 985, ended in the 15th century, so after 500 years of settlement the descendants of the Vikings gave up their lives in Greenland, while the ethnic groups today known as Inuit arrived and found a living on the island. For the Greenland, just like America, became through this a lost settlement for the Norse culture, a lost land.

Today Greenland has autonomous home-rule, and is in a personal union with Denmark under one monarch, to many bystanders this might almost look like Denmark has lost a great part of its territory, and possible resources. However, it is not only Denmark that have ‘lost’ Greenland, for during the 1930’s the island of Greenland was divided between two states, or more correctly it was claimed by two states, as Norwegian fishermen and nationalists occupied parts of eastern Greenland in the name of the Norwegian state. The incident became rather embarrassing for the Norwegians, as the state and the fishermen wanted different things, it ended with an International court ruling that Greenland in its entirety was Danish territory, and that the Norwegians had no claim to it. So for a nation which once prided itself on being the origins of the settlers of Iceland, Greenland, and Norse North America, Greenland became a lost land, not unlike the modern political status of Greenland is to Denmark today. A land once home to a civilization of Norse hunters, gatherers and farmers, but now due to changing climate, pest, and declining interests from the medieval kings have become the home of a civilization very different from that which colonised the island more than a millennium ago.


The Saga of the Greenlanders

Eirik the Red’s saga

Arneborg, J., ‘Norse Greenland: Reflections on Settlement and Depopulation’, in Barrett, J.H., (Ed.), Contact, Continuity, and Collapse; The Norse Colonization of North Atlantic, (Turnhout, 2003).

Roesdahl, E., The Vikings, (London, 1998).

Roesdahl, E., ‘Walrus Ivory – demand, supply, workshops, and Greenland’, in Mortensen, A.; Arge, S.V., (Eds.), Viking and the Norse in the North Atlantic, (Torshavn, 2005).

Christiansen, E., The Norsemen in the Viking Age, (Oxford, 2002).

What are minorities? (And the story of two minorities in Norway)

When we decided that April should be minorities’ month, I was thrilled, cause then I could write about a minority of any kind. However, I have the last few weeks been thinking: how can I choose one minority in history and write about it? Or shall I look at a set of minorities? Or shall I write about why a minority became a minority? These thoughts have been bothering me for a while, because I wanted to get it all right. However, what does seem to stand clear in front of me is that no matter what I do, I will have to determine what a minority is, and why it is a minority. (As I will be referring to the Sami and the Kvens in this text, will I also be adding a brief account of their history at the end of this update, but if you find them interesting, then please go ahead and read more.) 

Based on common sense can minorities be seen as a group of people who are different from the majority population within its society, and at the same time must this minority to some extent recognize its own members as a part of this minority. So far, so good, but what kind of minorities are there out there? And who are they? Too many to count will be the easiest answer, but in general can minorities be divided in a set of groups; 1 ethnic minorities, 2 religious minorities, and 3 sexual minorities. The 3rd group will always be present in any kind of society, no matter how homogeneous the population is ethnically and culturally. So this blog post will focus on the two other types of minorities, and two very specific examples of them in Norwegian history, after all this is a history blog.

Traditionally have Norway only had a small number of national minorities, or so I was told while I was in school, these were the Sami, the Kvens, the Jews and the Gypsies. Of these 3 of them came into Norway, after the reformation, and the Jews did not gain access to the country until the second half of the nineteenth century, and that after a long public debate if they should be let in. But all of them have become minorities in Norway due to migration, and the search for a living and a better life.  Minorities become minorities due to migration in two ways: firstly by migrating into an area already populated by a different ethnic group, this applies to the Kvens, Jews and Gypsies. (Although, the Jews might also be seen as a religious minority as they are defined to some extent more by religion, than ethnicity.) Secondly, by being the original inhabitants in an area settled by groups that over time evolve into a majority and that bring the territory into a greater political unit. This is the story of the Sami, a group of indigenous peoples in Northern Scandinavia that over the last thousand years have gone from being a nomadic majority population in regions, to become a minority split between 4 states: Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

Due to the history of forced assimilation directed against the Sami and other minorities in Norway, have some of them received more attention than others. The idea in the years prior to the Second World War was that the Norwegian society should be Norwegian through and through, and that any minority languages and cultures should be rooted out and corrected so that these minorities could be integrated into the majority as full members of a Norwegian state. This assimilation process was supported by the idea of eugenics, and race studies, but in the beginning it started as a ‘crusade’ to convert the pagans living in the wilderness of the north. These processes destroyed the original Sami culture and its traditional religion. The policies of assimilation went so far, that for a period in the twentieth century were there children who were raised that was not taught the traditional Sami language, and the languages was dying. Furthermore did it develop a stigma of shame to be Sami, so many chose not to mention that they had Sami blood, for who wanted to be part of the ‘inferior’ people? All this changed after the Second World War, and during the 1970’s the Sami people started to wake up and claim respect and acceptance for who they are within the nation, and that they had been there longer than the state itself. Today the Sami have a separate parliament within the Norwegian state, and the languages that once was dying are now in active use. This is a total shift from what the life of this ethnic minority was like only 70 years ago.

The second type of minority I mentioned is one that for many nations and states might be the most problematic, the religious minority. Britain itself suppressed its religious minorities, and in so many states throughout the world have religious minorities been discriminated and prosecuted against. I can think of a few just on the top of my head: Huguenots in France, Catholics in England, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in Imperial Spain, among others. Religious divisions have in some conflicts given the rise to the same frictions as ethnic minorities within empires can create. The Kurds in Turkey or the Albanians within former Yugoslavia, are both ethnic groups that are/have been minorities within the states they once lived in. In Norwegian history was the Sami  the only religious minority for a long time, until during the course of the nineteenth century, first Catholics and then Jews were welcomed into the nation. Over the years have most Sami’s converted to Christianity, but the traditional religion is still practiced by some. But this have taken an ethnic minority into the religious majority, and equally have ethnic Norwegians converted to Catholicism or Islam, and through that are both a majority and a minority. It all depends on where you draw the lines within which we count the members.

Although minorities, and majorities have existed as long as written records, and even longer, I have a feeling that it is impossible to fully study a minority or majority in a given society, for there will always be members of each group that overlap with the other. In fact I’m personally both a part of minorities and a majority at the same time in my everyday life, it all depends on who I choose to be, and which identity I feel is most suitable at any given time. Although I’m white and European, this makes me in the Ethnic majority on campus at the University of Winchester, I am also male, which makes me a minority, furthermore am I gay, and foreign, both which are minorities both at the University and in the world in general. So depending on how we look at minorities, will determine who we are examining, and in some cases will our minorities and majorities be the same persons.

So as we have seen is a minority a group of people who are different from the majority of the population within a society, and often have these become so because of migration, and the longing for a better life.

A brief story about the Kvens and the Sami, a case study for minority assimilation.

Some of the first references to the ethnic diversity of Northern Scandinavia, and maybe also a good source for how the relationship between the ethnic groups were in those regions, can be found in the text known as Ohthere’s journey. A story added on to Alfred the Great’s translations of Orosius, that not only is about the journey of Ohthere, a Norseman who travels to Alfred’s court, but also about the society he lives in, and the lands he traveled through to get there.

                The text mentions several groups of people, but especially how the relationship is between the Norse settlers in Northern Norway and the Sami living inland from them. A relationship marked by taxation and domination by one group over the other. In addition to outline the trade and taxation practices of Northern Norway both in the early middle ages, but also trends that continued for many hundred years later, the text also mentions another ethnic group that together with the Sami have shaped Northern Norway since the seventeenth century, the Kvens. The Kvens, is an ethnic group originally from areas that today is part of Finland, but migrated to Norway in two waves. Firstly, during the seventeenth and eighteenth century to find more agricultural land, due to population growth in their homelands, secondly, during the nineteenth century when the population again was rising in, but this time it was combined with famine and failed harvests in the Torneo Valley on the border between Finland and Sweden. Both the first and the second wave of Kven migration to Northern Norway brought a new work force to the region, whereas the first migration settled and took up agriculture as a way of life, mixed with fishing and forestry, did the second settle in fishing villages or mining villages as they were both skilled and hard-working labourers. But why did this group that migrated from today’s Finland become so significant for the region? Well the answer is in the share numbers of the migration, it is estimated that at the beginning of the Twentieth century there were about 25% of the population of Finnmark that were of Kven origin. In some regions there was not only the dominant ethnic group, but also a significant minority to take account of.  If there is one-act in the history of Norway that can be seen as the formal starting point of the nationalization of the minorities, then it is the law of 1902 about purchasing land from the state. The law stated that only Norwegian speakers could purchase land from the state, this was to prevent foreign business interests to buy up Norwegian resources, and above all to make sure that the land would stay on Norwegian hands. This did not only prevent Kvens, who spoke a language related to Finnish, but also the Sami from buying land for agriculture or for other reasons. This law can stand as a monument for all the actions that followed which forcefully attempted to assimilate the Kven and Sami population into the majority population.

Some have suggested that these actions of Norwegianisation of the Kvens were an attempt to prevent a Finnish rebellion among the Kvens in support of Finland, the cultural mother-land of the Kvens. And there have, as far as I can tell, not been many large-scale rebellions against this Norwegianisation of the Kvens or the Sami, well maybe with one exception. What I have in mind is an episode known as the Kautokeino rebellion, a short episode were a small group of Sami led an attack on the local authorities and trade center. As far as I am aware, is this the only incident were violence was used by members of either ethnic group, in what some choose to see as an attempt to fight back against the settlements and oppression. However, there are more elements to this one case than just this one,  for those that have the possibility is the sources, which are published in a collected volume, available in Norwegian. And there is also made a film about this event, although it is not very accurate, it is a free interpretation of a series of events which till this day is not fully understood. For the theories range about everything from religious fanatics acting against the selling of alcohol, to a reaction against the exploitation of the  Sami among the local Norwegian population, or as desperate act in response to the loss of the grazing areas east of the Finno-Russian border, after it got closed in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, this is not the place or time to debate the origins for the rebellion, but what this rebellion suggest alongside its sources, is that the Sami population and their culture was changing as a result of the Nationalization of the nation.

As a part of the Norwegianization policies applied by the Norwegian government during the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, were the teaching of Sami and Kven/Finnish slowly abolished in schools. In some areas were these languages taught until 1936, this abolition was a part of the ideas of ‘one nation- one people- one language’ that formed the base note of the assimilation policies prior to the Second World War.

In the years after the Second World War, were these policies re-examined in relation to the Human Rights and Norway’s relationship with the UN. It lead to an re-establishment of teaching in Sami and Finnish in schools, and the establishment of a Sami Parliament to safeguard Sami interests in relation to their rights as an indigenous people. Whereas the Sami have gained recognition of their status as Indigenous people, and have a Parliament guiding the state on Sami related issues, the Kvens have been integrated into Norwegian society, although their cultural and linguistic heritage is now safeguarded from extinction due to the legal protection of these traditional elements in Kven culture.

In comparison to other minorities around the world, the story of the Sami and Kvens is not as gruesome as it perhaps could have been. Thanks to a strong political and cultural awareness among these groups they have survived and developed within the Norwegian state into what they are today. It is believed to live between 40-60 000 Sami and 15-25 000 Kvens in Norway, so these groups are not easily dismissed in the wider national context. Although minorities exist, and come into existence due to migration, and although it sometimes seems easier to assimilate minorities into one culture, where everyone speak the same and have the same culture, we as citizens of the World should remember that it is the diversity of these culture that makes life exciting to live. So please let us not go backwards and force minorities into the closed, where they will hide in shame and die, but let us celebrate them and accept them. For who knows, we might need their knowledge one day. So let’s have the Sami Parliament in Norway stand as a monument for the rights indigenous people have, and the respect minorities, both those forgotten and extinct, and those living today, deserve to have. After all, you who read should remember that you might also be a minority from time to time, depending on time and space.




Burning the cakes

There are certain types of characters and persons who leave a legacy behind which generation after generation is fascinated with. One of those persons is a man, who throughout his life was troubled by illness according to his biographer. Alfred the Great became King of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex (West Saxons and Kent) after his 4 older brothers all died. After being born as an unlikely king, as the youngest boy in among a large group of sons, he became the succeeding link which saved the kingdom from its defeat and extinction. Not only that, he also, as the Victorians saw it, laid the foundations of the Empire, the Navy and much else in English society.

But what is so special about Alfred that triggers the imagination of so many and why did generations of Brits grow up on the stories of Alfred’s reign? Why did he the most unexpected king end up as a favorite of the nation? Well the answer is in one way simple, and I’ve already mentioned it: Alfred have a biography, which is quite unusual for kings at his time, or at least among the Anglo-Saxon Kings before him. Written records about lives in the Anglo-Saxon world was prior to Alfred reserved for Saints predominantly, although on the continent the great rulers of the Frankish kingdom got their deeds and lives recorded in the fashion of the Roman emperors.  So Alfred’s life is recorded, and there exist a biography of his life, but so what? Is that all that caused Alfred’s fame, or is there more one might ask, well if it was so then more of the later Anglo-Saxon kings would have been much better known. SO what is Alfred’s key claim to fame?

Well one explanation is that Alfred, his life and reign, is relatively well documented compared to many of his contemporaries. Another might just as well be the fact that Alfred saved England and the English, and through his lifestyle as it appears in the bibliography became a perfect man. The perfect character in History. Not only did Alfred turn back the Viking invasion of England, and both consolidated his power as king of Wessex and extended his influence beyond the borders of his kingdom. In one way is he the turning point in British history, both the last king of a small Anglo-Saxon kingdom and the first of what was to turn into England a few generations later. Although he was a successful ruler, there must have been another reason for his fame, and why so many know his name. Well his fame did not kick off until after the reformation as historians have shown but if you ask most people in Britain about him, some will today not know him and others will mention the burning of the cakes. Yes even the bus driver on bus I took the other day mentioned the cakes that Alfred burned. Through the problem is, we don’t know if he ever burned the cakes, for the story is a later edition to the story of Alfred that first appeared from a book about an Anglo-Saxon Saint written years after Alfred’s death. But this is what Britain remembers; that Alfred burned the Cakes. Although one can read into the story that one should mind one’s work or it might go wrong and the intended product of the work might not turn out as one hoped. For that is what Alfred did, he forgot to mind the cakes so they burned instead of being perfect just as the Swineherd’s wife had intended.

‘So mind your work or it goes wrong’, well even though it is a powerful message, it might not quite historical correct, although we have no possibility of testing the validity of the story. But Alfred could be known for so much more, it is just a shame that history is not important or well-known in today’s society as it used to. 100 years ago history shaped society differently, and knowing the past was a vital part of a child’s education and readings, although what was seen as important in the past than is different from now. Even though we today know more about the past than we did 100 years ago, the impact of our knowledge might actually have shrunk. How can this be? Well let me try to explain; at the beginning of the 20th century children growing up in Europe, among other, learned about the history of their nations through school, through textbooks, through normal children stories etc., and as a result of that did a significant part of British children know the name of Alfred, French children knew about the Frankish kings, and Norwegian children could recite parts of Snorri’s Heimskringla.  However, as History as a discipline has developed during the 20th century, the knowledge of some parts of the past have decreased, not only because History have become a more specialized discipline, but also because more history have happened in between then and now. A textbook I had in my first year at University is known as ‘Fortida er ikke hva den en gang var’, meaning the past is not what it was, a fitting title for a text about historiography, but it also describes the development of history. It is no longer what it was, although children today know proportionally less of the total history of their nation, they today are not educated to be good citizens of the nation, but rather of the world. For their history lessons was a part of defining who they were, and both their individual and collective identity. While historians have found it more interesting to examine the sources and other aspects of the past than just kings and heroes, and have moved away from the role as narrator towards the role as examiner, who seek to understand more than just the successions of kings and their deeds.

Even though many of my friends from Britain probably wouldn’t have known who King Alfred was if they had not studied in Winchester, which has a statue of the King, Alfred is still important today. Not as much as the perfect Englishman as he was in 1901, but more as a window into a mostly hidden world which the Anglo-Saxon world is for us. Even if Alfred and the truthfulness of his biography is still a debated subject today, it is still both a window into the world it was written and it gives historians vital knowledge about the early middle ages. So even though children today might not know Alfred’s name, or the stories about him found in the sources, he is still an important part of their past, and like so much else deserves to be examined and talked about, like all history. For if we don’t remember then we will forget, not only who came before us, but also who and what we are. After all if we don’t mind the cakes they’ll burn…


Christian II of Denmark, Sweden and Norway

When one learns about the history of Scandinavia there are many names, dates, kings and politicians that one learn about, just like in all other histories, but today I am writing to you about a man who was a king. In fact he was the King in Scandinavia, ruling areas stretching from Finland in the East to Iceland in the west, from the Barents Sea in the north to North Germany.  He was the last king to unify these areas under one rule, but also the one man to cause its breaking apart.

So who was he? Well as you who have read out blog for a while know that we this month are doing a: Monarch’s you don’t often hear about month. And I’ve already written to you about Kristina of Sweden. As the Scandinavian history so rarely are brought to the attention of the World, well with the exception of the Vikings, and a few battles and kings from the 15thcentury onwards, then I feel it should be right to outline to you what happened to the once Unified Kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark and Norway that caused it to break apart.

The answer is simple, well it’s not simple at all like in all history, for there are many factors taking part in these events, but in this article I’ll do the one thing that I hate, I’ll follow the bigger lines… I apologize in advance.

The key to the end of the Scandinavian commonwealth is the son of King Hans (John in English) and Queen Christine of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, namely Christian II. Christian were born in 1481 as a Prince of the three Kingdoms which formed the Kalmar Union (Denmark, Sweden and Norway). And he died in 1559 imprisoned at Kalundborg Castle; his crime was attempting to re-establish himself as King of Norway in 1531-2, after years in exile at his sister in law’s court in the Netherlands. But why exile? What had Christian done? And what were the consequences of his actions. Well we have already swiftly mentioned the consequences; for his actions and policies during his short reign and prior to his coronation, especially the act that followed his Swedish coronation caused his kingdom to fall apart, and the individual countries to reestablish themselves independently.

Christian’s actions were his policies towards the governing powers in the three countries, for instance he favored Danes in the most important political and administration positions in Norway, contradictory to his promise when he were elected King, a policy that lead to tension between him and the Local nobility. He inherited from his ancestors a political problem in Sweden, with the country’s nobility not being easily pleased, and as all the three countries were de facto electoral kingdoms the nobility and the estate assemblies of the three countries had to elect the king separately. This allowed each of the three countries to separately establish its own relation to the King, and negotiate the basis for his reign in that specific country. Christian inherited the Crown to the Kalmar union after his dad in 1513, yet Sweden which his dad had lost in 1501 were outside his reach until 1520. It is Christian’s actions to regain control over Sweden that gives him his most significant mark upon history. His policies in Norway and Denmark were all financial preparations for the big campaign to become king of Sweden, but his actions against the Norwegian nobles in the late years of his father’s reign had given him a reputation of being ruthless.

It is not his champagne that’s vital, it was a normal late medieval campaign, but when the widow of his opponent, the steward of Sweden, surrendered Stockholm in 1520, he was finally made king of Sweden. Although his revenge sparked another uprising, not only in Sweden, but it also sparked what is later known as the Count’s feud. A war about the Kalmar crown and Swedish independence, and all this due to Christian breaking his promise to hold an Estate assembly, but rather to hold the ‘Bloodbath of Stockholm’, which was a series of executions of about a hundred leading Swedish nobles and clergymen between the 7th and the 9th of November 1520 as a punishment for their revolts against his dad many years earlier. This sparked as mentioned above a new conflict, one that ended in Christian II going into exile and all the three counties converting from Catholicism to Lutheran Protestantism.

Although Christian’s legacy in history is mostly bound to ordering the Bloodbath in Stockholm, but we should remember that he like so many other monarchs ruled according to their geopolitical surroundings. I am by no means defending his attacks on the Swedish leaders, but I am saying that his actions were not that different from those by the Spanish during the Dutch revolts. And just think about it; what would the world have looked like if he had not done it? Well that is something I’ll leave for your imagination. Take care and keep on reading! 🙂


Women and Christianity in Western Scandinavia

The Conversion of Scandinavia is like the conversion of all areas a debated and contested topic in historical writing, not only because it is so decisive for the further development of the nations which we today know as Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, but also because different historians read the sources differently, and that is not even taking into account the use of archaeological evidence. But during the last decade or so have the historical research started to go interdisciplinary in the approach to this topic, yet it have seem that the scholars have forgotten that the area they are concerned with is waste and contain many differences within itself. This have caused a number of theories and approaches to the topic to surface and then to disappear after some time, or as a Norwegian Bishop said it in 1930 when he attempted to make sense of the historical research about St Olaf up to that point; ‘If you go to the historians for answers you will witness a Polish parliament, were everyone will be looking after their own interests and tear apart everyone else’s ideas and meanings. The development of historical research on the topic is like a household where things are being put to the side, or stored away because it is of no use anymore, or thought unreliable, but who knows maybe some of the ideas and approaches that have been stored away might one day be packed out of the boxes again and embraced once more.[1] So with this in mind we should explore the problems about the interpretations of the conversion in Scandinavia.

First of all we should all know that the idea which is taught in schools that Christianity was brought to the region with sword and blood, based on the Icelandic sagas, especially Heimskringla and the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings, is wrong.[2] I have elsewhere on this blog described the issues with the sagas as a source,[3] but I can in this instance add that for the region as a whole the sagas do not give enough information about the transition period between Paganism and Christianity, it almost seems like it all happened over night. However, we as readers of history are aware that there are other accounts to this matter, though all of them have their own issues which I will not go into detail about here, but these sources can help broaden our understanding of the late pagan world and the early Christian world in the North as well as the transition between the two of them, did this transition happen overnight in 1000 on Iceland and in 1030 in Norway and in the 10th century in Denmark?  Or are we more likely to find that things took time and that the two religions and beliefs lived side by side for a period of years? I remember from my education in a Norwegian school that the conversion we dealt with as a clear-cut change that happened almost overnight, and this was thought at a point when academic historians already had started to see the possibility that Christianity could have been present in the country long before the textbooks suggest it. [4]

More resent research have included the use of archaeology among their evidence, which have brought a whole new debate about this period,  a debate we here don’t have time nor place to give you full update on, but the main thing you need to know is that everything isn’t always what it seem. It is in this environment many new articles and books have been publishes as a contribution to the search for the “truth” about the conversion in Scandinavia. Among the recent and valuable contributions to the topic is Anne-Sofie Graeslund’s[5]  and Jørn Staecker’s[6] articles in the 2003 book ‘The Cross goes North’.  Yet both seem to apply their research and findings to the entire region even though they are only from a very small area, respectively from Birka in Sweden and parts of Denmark and these areas are both very well-connected with the continent through trade and other connections. They were also the areas where German and Carolingian missionaries worked in 9th century.[7] It has to be said, both articles were primarily concerned with the role of women in the conversion of Scandinavia, and their belonging in the new faith. Although these articles do stand fast in their conclusions and in their own right is worth reading, I believe that their generalization for all of Scandinavia based on the few sources and the little spread of evidence geographically might suggest that further research is needed, or that it need to be reevaluated. For there seem to be little if no evidence from Iceland or the western parts of Norway areas which traditionally have been associated with each other.

In a recent study the author(me) found that be looking at the evidence supplied through the Sagas and other medieval literature from Iceland and comparing this with the archaeological reminds found on Iceland and in the four western Counties in Norway; Møre og Romsdal, Sogn og Fjordane, Hordaland and Rogaland, one can see that the conclusion that Scandinavian women were attracted to Christianity at an early age, based on Graeslund and Staerker’s articles, might not fit with the situation for the western parts of Scandinavia which was closed connected to the British Iles then to the continent,[8] after all a large number of settlers to Iceland came either through Scotland Ireland and England or the Hebrides, Orkney’s, Shetland and Faeroe Islands, which at the point were among the native population Christian, at least in the name. This suggest that many settlers who came to Iceland were acquainted with Christianity, and as the sagas and Landnamabook suggest, among these were some Christians who were both baptized and had received communion, among these the majority were women, though it seems from the same sources that religion did not at this point restrict the marriage marked  for the settlers or their counterparts in the British Isles, for it is suggested that there were marriages were one was belonging to the traditional beliefs and the other were Christian, in these cases it was most likely that the Woman would be Christian and would bring her religion with her to their new home on Iceland. Although these evidence are good in themselves there is one slight problem; so far it have not been found any Christian burials, not male nor female, in Iceland that dates before 980 A.D., so therefore it have been suggested that after the first generation of Christian settlers the Christian minority on Iceland took on the costumes of the pagan majority, and adapted to the political and cultural climate on the island to survive.[9] It have been suggested that since burials are done after the deceased is passed, they might not reflect the religious views, beliefs and practices held by the deceased, but rather by their family which is left behind, this might explain why we so far have not found any Christian burials on Iceland. Yet it have to be mentioned that the majority of the burials on Iceland are not what one would expect from a Viking burial; large mounds with ships and lots of goods, they are rather more sparsely equipped, and the majority are also found by share luck due to earth erosion or construction work.[10] Some archaeologists have suggested and believe that the tradition of flat ground burials, i.e. burials underground without a mound, are influences of Christianity, and the same is said about the lack of grave goods. If these are true then we might have to reevaluate the theory about the re-conversion back to paganism due to the political and cultural climate on the Saga island before the conversion in 999/1000. Already here we can see that the once straight forward conversion story of the north might be more complex than first believed, for aren’t these evidence killing each other?

Well to make it a bit more interesting; in the western counties of Norway, one can in the 8th and 9th century burials which archaeologists have classified as Christian or Christian influenced, and of these the majority are female, or cannot be gender determined. In an area where the ratio between burials is five male burials for every female burial,[11] one would expect to find evidence for Christian influence also in a larger number of male burials, yet the burials we here are concerned with are those the archaeologists have found, I.e. those that either have been marked by some means or just found by accident, and most of these bear witness of belonging in the upper layers of society,[12] therefore this evidence is not just demographically corrupted due to the unevenness between the genders, but also due to the possibility that maybe 90% of the population might have been buried in unmarked graves and we cannot therefore study these persons burials to trace the religious beliefs of the time through them. Yet those burials that have been classified as Christian can primarily be found in up to late 9th century and again in the late 10th century with a gap of about 50-70 years where they not only decrease in number, but also totally vanish for a period.[13] In this same period we see an Increase in the use of rich and well equipped mound or boat burials of the pagan traditions. And this leaves us with the question; do we see a decline in Christianity in the period and an increase in the traditional paganism as a reaction against this acceptance of the new faith? We hear about this in the sagas, that the powerful earls of Lade among others reinstituted and supported a revival of the pre-Christian traditions, as well as attacked Christians and attempts on accommodating for the conversion.[14] Are we once again faced with the possibility of a conversion back to the pre-Christian traditions? Or is the lack of Christian burials just and evidence for that the Christians started to bury their dead in flat ground graves without markers which is why we have not found any? Or what happened? For in the late 10th century we find in at least two locations regular standardized Christian burials in cemeteries that suggest that the religion were well established by the last two decades of the tenth century in Norway, which is the same time as we see the first archaeological evidence for Christianity on Iceland also appearing . So where Staecker and Graeslund suggest the conversion was done once and was final then, it seems like the western regions of Scandinavia follows a different pattern with a period where the Christians disappear from the sources for the majority of the 10th century, and at the same time it looks like we find a pagan revival in the same regions. This suggest as earlier explored that the women in western Scandinavia might initially have been drawn to the new faith in the early period, through contact with the world outside for then, to go back to the traditional religion when the political and cultural climate changed to be more hostile towards Christianity in the 10th century.

[1] Berggrav, E., Brytningene omkring Olav og Stiklestad: Momenter til et opgjør foran jumileet, (1930, 7)

[2] R.Kayser, Norges Historie, 1866, 4-5

[3] See article on the blogg from 14th of February 2011.

[4] R. Danielsen, S. Dyrvik, T. Grønlie, K. Helle, E. Hovland, Grunntrekk i norsk historie, fra vikingtid til våre dager, (1991, 31).

[5] A-S Graeslund, ‘The role of Scandinavian Women in Christianisation: the Neglected evidence’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003).

[6] Staecker, J., ’The Cross goes North; Christian Symbols and Scandinavian Women’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003).

[7] K.C. Alvestad, Women and Christianity in the ninth and tenth century Western Scandinavia, (2011,Unpublished, 7).

[8] O.G. Moseng, E. Opsahl, G.I. Pettersen, E. Sandmo, Norges historie 750-1537, (2007, 81).

[9] J. Jochens, ’Late and peaceful. Iceland’s conversion through arbitration in 1000’, Spectrum, vol. 74, No. 3, (Jul.,1999),640.

[10] B.B. Birgisdottir, ’Gravskikk på Island og norskekysten i vikingtiden, et bidrag til diskusjonen islendingenes opprindelse’, in A. Christophersen, & A. Dybdahl, (ed.), Gasir- en Internasjonal handelsplass i Nord-Atlanteren, (1999, 78).

[11] E.M. Skipstad, Kvinner og Kristendom på Vestlandet; En Undersøkelse med utgangspunkt i Graver fra yngre jernalder i Sogn, (2009, 40).

[12] Ibid, 47.

[13] Ibid, 67; J. Staecker, ’The Cross goes North; Christian Symbols and Scandinavian Women’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003, 468-470).

[14] P. Hærnes, ’Kristen innflytelse  i Rogalandsk vikingtid’ in, H-E. Liden, (ed.), Møte mellom hedendom og kristnedom i Norge, (1995, 85)


Alvestad, K.C., Women and Christianity in the ninth and tenth century Western Scandinavia, (2011,Unpublished).

Berggrav, E., Brytningene omkring Olav og Stiklestad: Momenter til et opgjør foran jumileet, (1930)

Birgisdottir, B.B., ’Gravskikk på Island og norskekysten i vikingtiden, et bidrag til diskusjonen islendingenes opprindelse’, in A. Christophersen, & A. Dybdahl, (ed.), Gasir- en Internasjonal handelsplass i Nord-Atlanteren, (1999)

Danielsen, R., Dyrvik, S., Grønlie, T., Helle K., Hovland, E., Grunntrekk i norsk historie, fra vikingtid til våre dager, (1991).

Hærnes, P., ’Kristen innflytelse  i Rogalandsk vikingtid’ in, H-E. Liden, (ed.), Møte mellom hedendom og kristnedom i Norge, (1995)

Graeslund,A-S., ‘The role of Scandinavian Women in Christianisation: the Neglected evidence’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003).

Jochens,J., ’Late and peaceful. Iceland’s conversion through arbitration in 1000’, Spectrum, vol. 74, No. 3, (Jul.,1999)

Kayser, R., Norges Historie, 1866

Moseng, O.G., Opsahl, E., Pettersen, G.I., Sandmo, E., Norges historie 750-1537, (2007).

Skipstad, E.M., Kvinner og Kristendom på Vestlandet; En Undersøkelse med utgangspunkt i Graver fra yngre jernalder i Sogn, (2009)

Staecker, J., ’The Cross goes North; Christian Symbols and Scandinavian Women’, in Carver, M., (ed.), The Cross goes North, (2003).

The Lollards, A Lost Cause?!

In his book from 1838, George Stokes claims;
that the ideas of John Wycliffe and the Lollards were “the rising sun of the
reformation,” he argues this based on the relation between Wycliffe’s ideas and
those of Jan Hus and other reformers in the Late medieval period. In this
article I will try to assess the lost cause of the Lollards, and at the same
time see who and what they were, and why their cause fall under the category of
Lost cause.

The movement of the Lollards, or Lollardy, was
an early English reformation movement which to a great extent was based on the Oxford trained scholar, philosopher and preacher John Wycliffe (c. 1328-1384), who together with many of his contemporaries believed that the Church had to great a power, and was too interested in worldly matters and wealth, while neglecting their obligations towards the believers. Unlike the papal church Wycliffe meant that one either was predestined to be saved or to be condemned,
in other words he believed in the church of the saved. The Lollards believed
that the power of the church and their authority came not from Rome, but
from the Holy Scripture, and that anyone who believed and lived in grace could
perform the sacraments, which technically meant that there was no need for
religious specialists after this. Unlike the Catholic Church, did the Lollards
believe that the basis of their faith came from the scripture, and started to
translate the Bible into English so that those literate in English would be
able to read and understand its words. This idea in itself was not a new idea;
after all, King Alfred had already in the ninth century translated parts of the
Psalms into English. The Lollardian effort to translate had a far greater
impact on Europe than in the early medieval effort. For this idea was adopted
by other reformers, such as Luther and Jan Hus, and formed the basis for
developing the reformed churches in Europe.  Other central ideas among the Lollards was the believe that during the Eucharist the bread and the wine did not turn into the blood and body of Christ, but it was rather a consubstantiation, which means it’s a symbolic act, they were also pro iconoclasm, which means they were against religious images and art for it could lead to idolatry instead of worshiping of God. The Lollards also believed that a priest did not have the power to forgive sins, and that the priesthood did not have a special position in the society, and therefore should not live in celibacy, not was the performance of the mass important to the Lollards, but rather the message of the text, which is why translated the Bible so that it could be accessible to a greater audience.

The Lollardian ideas spread from the circle of Wycliffe into the nobility and the lower classes, especially during the peasant’s revolt of 1381, a revolt that Wycliffe and his closest allies opposed, while the Lollards priest John Ball (c. 1338-1381) preached the Lollards ideas to the lower orders in England, this lead to the first serious persecutions against the Lollards, and many nobles and royals is said to see the movement as a radical and working against the English social order…

The prosecution of the Lollards continued until the English reformation when their movement and ideas were incorporated into the English Protestantism, although in the 15th and years leading up to the reformation the prosecution became severe, after the rebellion of Sir John Oldcastle against Henry V and the
church the Lollards risked being burned to the stake for their beliefs, the
last burning happened in 1532, in Chesham when Thomas Harding was burned for being a Lollards.

The incorporation and adaptation of lollardy into other reform movements in Europe and in England, as well as the prosecution against its members lead to an end of the “pure” Lollard movement, their idea of a pure church, as well as the meddling with the peasant’s revolt and the revolt of Oldcastle, as well as their status of heretics led to their fall and enrolment in our list of “Lost causes” which after all is the theme of this month.


Imsen, Steinar, Europa 1300-1550, (Oslo, 2nd Ed. 2000)

Stokes, George., The Lollards,(London, 1838)

The Icelandic Sagas

“There was a man named Ulf, the son of Bjalfi and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless. She was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-troll from Hrafniste, father of Ketil Haeng.” These two sentences are the opening lines in Egils saga, maybe the most famous of all independent sagas, and clearly a masterpiece of the style. The Sagas, or more precisely the Icelandic sagas, are a collection of early medieval text that are based on a storytelling tradition that lived on Iceland from centuries before the stories were written down in the 13th or 14th century.

For me personally the first encounter with the sagas were not the famous Egils saga or Njåls saga, but Heimskringla, which is for those of you who do not know it the saga about the Early Norwegian Kings, my first encounter with the style of the sagas was as mentioned taken from this text, it was the part in King Harald fair-haired’s saga where it tells about the battle of Hafrsfjord which happened in 872 where King Harald became king over all of Norway. Later scientists have debated this claim, and suggested that Harald could not possibly have made himself King over all of Norway, but that is not a debate we should look into here. Like with other Sagas, Heimskringla, have parts which not necessarily was the exact thing that happened or was said, and very few historians now days believe that the entire content of the sagas are true from beginning to end, however, it has been suggested that the sagas through their lives as oral stories have changed and been adapted to the audience over the years. This possibility makes it harder for both historians and ordinary people to read the sagas as historical records, for one may never be 100% sure on what is the truth and are the original story.

Many of the Sagas that have survived until today are not original documents, most of them are early modern copies of, either and late medieval copy or the original manuscript. This would mean that the text you and I read today in English have been re-written about 4 times which then increases the possibility of loosing information and meaning on the way. For one that want to read the Sagas a source for historical research, not only is there a possible problem with the translations and new copies, but also with the authorship of the text. As mentioned above are the majority of the sagas not first and foremost a written text in itself, they are texts that are based on oral traditions and stories that have been handed down through generations, some stories may have existed about 300 years before anyone wrote them down.

But who were these persons that wrote them down? The answer to this question is not simple, cause some of the texts have names connected to them, while other again do not. The truth is that scholars have so far not been able to exactly say that a certain person is the author, what is certain is that the author must have been among the educated elite of the Island, either through the being a part of the clergy or the civil elite. More than that is not possible to say certain, however, there are texts that have strong indications on who may have written them, like for example Heimskringla. This uncertainty makes the assessment of whether the author have been taking sides, or having  personal interests in the saga, very hard.

No matter how hard it is to assess or to get a grip on the truth in the Sagas, or how complicated they are as sources for history, they are still text that makes a good read, either you do it for the joy of it, or if you read them to get insight into a society that is so different from the one we live in today. So my suggestion will be, go to your local library and ask if they have either one or several of the Icelandic sagas and borrow it. For i would claim that reading them may need a bit of an effort, but it is worth it, after all they are seen as one of the masterpieces of European literature.


Thorsson, Ø.,(ed.) The Saga of Icelanders; a selection, 2000.