Monday, January 18, 2016

The Misrepresentation of Class Struggle During Norwegian State Formation

  For anyone who might be interested, this is the only paper I wrote last semester. It's basically a book report on this book by Bagge. Interesting to me but not my best work. Enjoy!

In his book, From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway, c. 900-1350, Sverre Bagge tackles the process of state formation—how Norway became Norway. It becomes clear early in the text how many aspects of this colossal topic have to be taken into account. Norwegian state formation cannot be summed up easily, and while there are a few broad answers, such as the influence of Christianity, they must be deconstructed into narrower exemplifiers which can take plenty of time and even more context. Bagge explicitly breaks down these factors into two major categories: external and internal. The text focuses mostly on the latter and simply summarizes the former. Norway’s neighborly threats, aggressive Denmark and the continental Christian kingdoms, put pressure on the leaders of the country to build defenses and define its borders. The methodology largely ignores archaeological research. Instead, Bagge unravels Norway’s muddled history with the use of written sources, especially the kings’ sagas, law and law codes, and other Norwegian medieval texts, such as The King’s Mirror. Bagge uses other scholars’ point of views sparingly throughout the text, especially when it comes to the aristocracy, which is the main focus of this paper. Bagge writes in a very straight-forward manner—in the spirit of an objective historical work. He argue against the Marxist view of Andreas Holmsmenn’s demographic crisis theory in relation to the struggles between the aristocracy and monarchy. I also brought in some points from another Bagge work, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, where he uses some ideas of Halvdan Koht to emphasize his argument against a Marxist approach. I will be referring to From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom for the remainder of this paper unless otherwise cited.
The key to understanding the internal aspects of state formation is centralization, on which Bagge spends the majority of his efforts in the book. The monarchy and the Church evolved to wield tremendous influence by centralizing their respective powers during the state-building era, approximately 995-1264 (from Olaf Tryggvason to the incorporation of Iceland under Norway), and especially in the twelfth century. Bagge argues that the components of this centralization in Norway have been misinterpreted in early and modern scholarship. He appears to be painting a picture not of revolutionary new concepts in the field but one of scholarly adjustment: scholars and researchers tend to over-exaggerate certain factors of Norwegian state formation and do not give enough attention to other, subtler determiners. The impact of the Church, military changes, and especially the role of the aristocracy and the strain between different classes have been misinterpreted and therefore misrepresented in scholarship.
            This is not to say that his or anyone else’s previous scholarship is wrong or off point. His going into such great detail of the internal factors has nonetheless unearthed a slightly different foundation on which scholars have built an unstable, lopsided structure. Before exploring this shaky model, however, it is important to define state formation. If it was a process and not an event, what were the conditions and where did it end? Bagge gives us his definition of state formation as a “centralization, bureaucratization, and a monopoly or near monopoly on violence”[1]. However, to set a definite ending to this process is to fall into the trap that says Norway, as it is today, was pre-determined to become a state and just had to grow out of its medieval phase. Bagge never fully answers when exactly Norway achieves its statehood, but hints that some of these processes became institutionalized and part of the everyday functions of the kingdom somewhere between the late-thirteenth and mid-fourteenth century. One could argue that state formation could have ended sooner, later, or never fully stopped developing, but when Norway was able to focus its energies externally to the submission of Iceland seems like a good indicator of sound statehood.
            Medieval state formation cannot be discussed without taking the conversion to Christianity into consideration and Norway is no exception. In Scandinavia, the two almost work hand-in-hand in developing a territory into a state, each benefiting from the other. Both of Norway’s missionary kings, Olav Tryggvason and (St.) Olav Haraldson, in fact, seem to have transplanted Christianity from their respective places of baptism to their homelands, taking with them bishops, literacy, and Roman bureaucracy[2]. While recent scholarship has straightened out the difference between conversion and Christianization, in itself a lengthy and misunderstood process, Bagge attempts to distance the religious impact from state formation, calling the relationship a “casual connection.[3]” In other words, Christianity’s influence assisted but was not essential. Could Christianity’s prominence in Scandinavia at the turn of the millennium be a coincidence? Bagge does not go quite that far. He does, however, attempt to lessen the importance of the Church, which, according to him, was too weak at the time to significantly increase a Scandinavian king’s power.
            Diminishing Christianity’s role, however, does not mean that it was not important in developing the state. The two Olavs witnessed on the continent and in England the benefits the religion could lend to an aspiring and eventually established ruler. In keeping with the ingenious and advantageous spirit of the Viking Age, they used Christianity as a commodity, converting with the goal of political dominance[4]. By doing so, they did not instantly invent a new Christian kingdom, nor was the religion much use to them individually in the long run. Neither king held the throne for very long and their power over the Norwegians was questionable at best. The kings and leaders continued to use alliances and personal networks throughout the Christianization process. Christianity did not truly contribute major changes to royal power until well after the state was established[5]. It did, however, set down for their successors a blueprint for an organized infrastructure—something the Scandinavian kingdoms seemed to be lacking. The bureaucratic structure that Christianity introduced allowed kings to place men of their choosing into ecclesiastical positions, simultaneously centralizing their power into an administrative body and replacing and disqualifying competitors who were clinging to the old religion.
            The state, then, grew more centralized as an institution side-by-side with the Church, which developed on its own by relying on the established Roman bureaucracy. The two were not exclusive, having each assisted the other through the conversion and state formation processes, but, as Bagge says, the relationship was casual, not dependent. Evidence of this parallel progression can be seen in the sources. For instance, Harald Finehair began the process of state formation long before Christianity had begun to take hold in Norway[6]. The Norwegian and Danish kings side-stepping the episcopal see of Hamburg-Bremen also shows that while the Christian blueprint helped and possibly accelerated the unification process, it was certainly not essential[7]. Nor does Bagge deny Christianity’s impact. Instead, he shunts it into a sociocultural context—mercy was introduced into the law and shifted how people in the community viewed each other. Issues of Church function, especially in relation to the monarchy, went on to play a major role in the later civil wars. These issues were mostly political. Through the conversion process from paganism to Christianity, as well as later through the civil wars, dogma never surfaced as a contested issue[8]. The important issues were what exactly was the church’s jurisdiction and whether it had the right to overrule the king.
            Bagge attempts to compact these questions neatly into three points, but this leaves out some of the smaller, less tangible points. Foremost among these is Andreas Holmsmen´s demographic crisis, which essentially states that Norway morphed into a feudal-based state because of the population and economic pressures of the medieval period. Bagge discounts this view as too narrow and Marxist. Central to the division between factions were the attitudes towards the church, the disagreement on whether the monarchy should be a traditional and personal king or rather the authoritarian king that Christianity promoted, and lastly but most importantly the guidelines for proper royal succession. As the Church grew more powerful and stable, men began to choose the side that would personally benefit them the most, thus eventually splitting the population into two categories: those who, like the Church, backed legitimate succession, and those who favored the more traditional, classic Norse free-for-all of illegitimate sons.
            Even with a widening separation between the two sides, the factions, according to Bagge, developed their religious stances almost randomly. For instance, King Sverre had every right to disagree with the Church and its preference for primogeniture. According to his own story, he was some forgotten bastard son of the notoriously promiscuous Sigurður Magnússon, and therefore would have wanted, as potential and eventual king, to keep himself in control of certain aspects of the Church. His religious positions developed out of the necessity for survival and not out of any kind of conviction of the heart or dogmatic belief. The competition, Magnús Erlingsson and his camp, would have wanted to bolster those church policies of primogeniture in order to rid themselves of Sverre and future pretenders. Like Olav Tryggvason and St. Olav, these men used Christianity as just another, albeit incredibly useful, tool to fortify their positions in the Norwegian kingdom.
            Bagge argues that military power, on the other hand, had a much larger impact than is generally expressed in scholarship. According to the sources, or more appropriately, the lack of sources, Norway’s conversion was Scandinavia’s only excessively violent affair[9]. This resistance, again political, trickled down into the higher Middle Ages, and peaked during the civil wars. The violence of the conversion is often shrugged off as hagiography, and the sources are deemed untrustworthy. Bagge, however, emphasizes the military changes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that contributed to state formation to the extent that he again brings forth the unsatisfactorily documentation of these concepts. Indeed, much of the scholarship on the conversion and on state formation skates over these military advances to focus more on the polity itself and Christianity’s role in state formation.
Instrumental to these changes was the leiðangr system that was developed at the end of the Viking Age. For the first time, the Norwegian king had a reliable military force at his disposal. By creating this system, the country was subsequently divided into smaller territories, each responsible for sending a certain number of ships to the king’s or the country’s aid. The administrative division helped to further centralize the growing power of a monarchy. The 1273 Hird Law turned the leiðangr into a professional military force. Not only did these two systems bolster the king’s power, it eventually kept pretenders from gathering up the forces they needed to contend for the throne. Obviously, this process took some time, and Bagge claims that elite fighting forces most likely continued long into the later Middle Ages.
New military technology also began to infiltrate Norwegian culture from the continent. Utilizing cavalry, building castles, and improving weapons were a few of the contemporarily modern innovations that took hold all over Scandinavia. Their usage displays an extreme change—one that Bagge claims is very important and that scholars under-emphasize. While the leiðangr was still mostly a sea-faring and coastal force, the introduction of men on horseback and castles depicts a shift from sea to land, like the majority of Norway’s European neighbors. These changes also suggest a position of defense rather than one of expansion, which came to define the Viking Age. The kings could no longer rely on raiding and pillaging to pay for the increasing expenses of medieval defenses. Instead, they looked inward for economic durability. This compact and inward-facing model again depicts the growing strength of centralization. The exploitation of Norway’s own resources created another element of state formation that has been dangerously over-emphasized by scholars like Holmsmen: a growing separation of classes.
Bagge admits that it is easy to run away with a romantic Marxist idea of class development in early medieval Norway. A more noticeable aristocracy appears in the king’s sagas after the conversion, and the monarchy appears more centralized.  Snorri’s Heimskringla definitely plays into these themes. Starting with Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar, the reader meets more aristocrats and magnates with stronger personal identities and interests than are seen in the preceding sagas[10]. Of course, there could be a number of explanations. Perhaps Snorri’s sources became more reliable as they drifted out of pre-history and came closer to his own time. The sagas can certainly be read through this Marxist lens. A sudden onslaught of strong-willed and stubborn personalities emerged from beneath the former collective title of “farmers” around the time of St. Olav, and appeared to characterize an apparently new, upper stratum of society. This is unlikely, if not ludicrous, and Bagge agrees. As discussed above, Christianity did not create class separations but furthered the gap between classes and provided different opportunities to excel within a given class. Bagge maintains not only had an aristocracy been firmly established by the time of the conversion and possibly throughout the Viking Age, but also that the aristocratic factions and deeper divisions between classes were random at best. His constant refrain throughout the book, though, is how unclear the definitions of this medieval aristocracy really were. Explicit mention of a specific aristocracy is largely absent in sources until the fourteenth century, after they had achieved a legal status. In order to understand Bagge’s argument against the Marxist point of view, it is important to go back to see what exactly changed under the rule of the Olavs, how the aristocracy functioned, and how the class divisions played into and were affected by the civil wars.
Bagge argues that at the time of St. Olav, the aristocracy was not a collective or unified force but a handful of strong individual magnates that existed, either having inherited their wealth and power from prior generations or having been elevated in position by Olav Tryggvason[11]. The confusion surrounding the aristocracy can be partially blamed on this unified-versus-individual mentality. While the truth may never be certain, Bagge uses the kings’ sagas as reference points to make a compelling argument against the romantic theory of St. Olav’s missionary work and rudimentary state formation as a rallying point for a unified group of powerful farmers. By explaining that his quarrels were personal and individual, Bagge claims that there is no solid evidence that any alliances were commonplace.
Power at this time was localized. St. Olav, in attempting to centralize the power, agitated the existing order—but not in a general, overarching way. Bagge argues that St. Olav provoked men like Einarr Þambarskelfir, who had found his niche of power under the earls who were set up by King Cnut. Olav attempted to strip Einarr of his right to his veitsla, a type of income related to hosting and providing for the king. Could Einarr have been possibly collecting this income as total profit in the absence of a king? Unless the earls who seized power after the fall of Olav Tryggvason operated similarly to kings, which was unlikely, Einarr could have very well been increasing his wealth and power with very few expenses. The vacuum of power, so to speak, could have possibly enticed individual magnates to take advantage of the situation and increase their power. This could also offer an explanation for why St. Olav attempted to eliminate Einarr’s source of income. He was simultaneously stopping an economic leak while checking a competitor. Einarr was not the only farmer who saw his status come into uncertainty under St. Olav. The other farmers who made up the aristocracy were, like Einarr, attempting to salvage and fortify what was left of their local power, and they were not, as Snorri might have us believe, a unified organism.
Bagge uses the story of St. Olav´s personal struggles to confute Holmsmen´s view of class struggles. Even though the idea of a unified group of strong farmers fits well into a Marxist point of view, not to mention makes the story much more dramatic, it does not appear to have been that black and white. Bagge offers that St. Olav had offended enough important men that, in essence, he created his own worst enemy and provided a unique opportunity for an otherwise politically divided class to unite at Stiklarstaðir[12]. Does this mean that the Olavs created a new aristocratic class? Not necessarily. In fact, the man who organized the opposition at Stiklarstaðir, Kalv Arnason, can be seen as a later nationalistic literary device in Óláfs saga Helga—the Danish king would never be able to attain power in Norway without the help of a Norwegian[13]. Bagge is adamant that an aristocracy existed for centuries. In his view, however, the two Olavs provided a means by which men from strong families could participate in upper-class matters that they would otherwise be excluded from, namely by entering the church or by becoming lendir menn.
The Church provided many, if not entirely lucrative, positions for men who centuries before had to go looking elsewhere for an inheritance. For many prominent families, the church provided an institution of considerable power into which younger sons could be inserted. As has already been discussed, the church worked alongside the monarchy—not entirely separately but in a tensely beneficial relationship. As it grew more centralized and wealthy, the church presented a bigger threat to the monarchy than the aristocracy. The bishop, according to Bagge, sat atop the judicial hierarchy of the church, on par with the king who oversaw the secular law. This evenly matched institution provided an established ecclesiastical system in which young men could discover a small amount of power. This was especially possible when, after the conversion, there was a shift in the judgment of one’s status from the eyes of the community to the service of God. Power could also be found early on in individual churches. Bagge says that the pope was a distant figure, and the Norwegian church took a few centuries to develop into the fully functional, centralized powerhouse of the later Middle Ages. Locally owned churches, like the ones in Iceland, could provide a significant amount of wealth. It is difficult to assess the truthfulness of Bagge’s proclamations. The bishops held considerable power, no doubt, but placing them alongside the king is possible but not irrefutable.
The other main option for wealth and power at this transitional time of early state formation was to become a landr maðr. Bagge claims that this title first appears in skaldic-poetry under the rule of St. Olav; however this could very well be the saga authors projecting current ideas into the past. Indeed, King Harald Finehair can be seen giving land to men who served him loyally well before lendir menn are mentioned[14]. Nevertheless, giving out land to loyal followers became an important tool for Olav Tryggvason and St. Olav. Both kings amassed great wealth and prestige while raiding in other countries, which they used to attract men to their respective struggles for the Norwegian throne[15]. As the Viking raids began to fade and Christianity took root, these forays for wealth became less frequent—something Bagge attributes to the great King Cnut who at the time controlled both Denmark and England. With such a powerful foe blocking the most traditional resources (other people’s things), the kings began to look inward. Land was taken from men who resisted or otherwise displeased the king and given to more loyal men who were then charged with protecting the realm in the king’s name.
St. Olav and his brother Harald Hard-ruler implemented very different policies, according to their sagas, toward their magnates[16]. On the one hand, St. Olav replaced Olav Tryggvason’s men with men of lower rank. Harald appears to have struggled with the same magnates, but he either killed them or forced them to flee. Bagge’s thinking seems to be in line with Snorri’s, but because of his own vague definition of aristocracy, it is difficult to give too much credence to men of lower ranks being elevated to landr maðr. The lines between classes are too blurry.
The power of both the missionary kings and the aristocracy at the time of the conversion, according to Bagge, seems to have been inflated in the written accounts and mostly accepted by subsequent scholars. Without the resources of their European neighbors, however, the Norwegian aristocrats were too weak to actually control a king. There exists instead a push and pull between an organizing monarchy and burgeoning upper class of powerful lay and ecclesiastical magnates up until the civil wars. In Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, Bagge expands on this using Halvdon Koht’s description of the relationship between the monarchy and aristocracy not as a constant struggle, but as “a fundamental community of interest between the two which was finally manifested in the strong thirteenth century.[17]” Bagge adds that neither the wars’ beginnings nor their outcome had much to do with a class struggle. The difference is slim but essential to understanding Bagge’s point on the civil wars: the aristocracy decreased in number but grew more powerful as they became centralized under a stronger monarchy. They used the impoverished peasants to increase their gains and were able, at certain points, to highly influence who would become king during the time of war. A distinction between all three facets is noticeable and a widening gap discernable, but Bagge claims that this is simply a byproduct of the violence, almost randomly affecting the social makeup of the factions.
            A possible explanation for the misinterpretation is the saga writers projecting their current environment into the past. Though the civil wars did not originate in nor focus on class struggle, it does not mean that there were not some bumps in the road. In Bagge’s opinion, the authors transplanted the tense relationship between King Sverre and the aristocrats of the thirteenth century back into the era of conversion and early state formation. As St. Olav had plenty of personal enemies, this misappropriation would be completely understandable.
The confusion in scholarship surrounding the division between factions and the division between classes appears under the rule of King Sverre. He recruited young, rootless men to fight for him—men who were not trained warriors. This fact irked the already established warrior (aristocratic) class. The saga writers’ confusion could have sprung to life from this animosity. The warrior class disapproved of Sverre’s birchlegs, but not because they were from a lower class, though some contempt would have been instinctual. Instead, the disapproval came from the fact that the young men were inferior warriors.
The wars did seem to finally unify the previously disjointed aristocracy. The king slowly did away with landir menn and the title became a legal one. Their duties were taken over by the king’s own administrators, the slyssmenn. During the wars, many magnates realized they had less to lose if they sided with the king, who had a habit of taking land from his enemies and giving it to his own friends, even if their titles were changed. In the end, the king found himself surrounded by men who realized it would be more advantageous to be his friend rather than competitor[18]. The factions initially favored weak kings, putting unprecedented power in the hands of powerful magnates, which appears to favor Holmsmen’s theory. But as the struggle continued through the years, the need for stronger leaders became more and more apparent. Bagge maintains that the factions were not strictly divided on class-specific issues, and the later reasons for fighting did not exactly mirror the initial conflict. However, the lines Bagge draws become more and more difficult to pick out as they become entangled with later faction representations. As the hot topics shifted, different factions would have to adjust their stance—always with the threat of forgetting why they were fighting in the first place. The stronger and more centralized the leader, the better the rallying point for such fluid topics.
Centralization, according to Bagge, was a sort of finish line for state formation. Though, as stated above, he admits that, depending on the definition, the process could continue long into statehood. A number of important things occurred to make centralizing power effective enough to create a solid, functioning state. A strong monarchy forced the aristocracy to rely on it, shifting regional and local power to a stronger administrative support system for the king. Part of the reason the aristocracy appeared so disjointed was because some areas were regionally stronger than others. Bagge claims that by legalizing the nobility, the monarchy put both potential allies and enemies of the aristocracy on a technically equal level. The reality, of course, was that some magnates were still stronger than others, and yet, by giving them legal titles, the king placed them in a collective body that sat beneath his crown. More important still was the monopolization of violence, which Nora Berend claims is a signifying character of statehood[19]. This took some time in Norway, as pretenders continued to challenge the king. It was not until 1332 that King Hákon V made it illegal for individual magnates to employ their own armed men.
Passing positive laws such as this and being able to enforce them was another sign of Norway’s progress towards statehood. Though many men continued to enforce their own justice, by and large, the monarchy provided new laws and the men to make sure those laws were followed. Courts and judges were no longer made up of men owing allegiance to a local leader who could sway the outcome. They had become professionalized, and they represented the central authority of a king, serving him solely, and, in theory, being ruled in a more objective way. The law was now based on specific rules and not on the interpretation of the members of the community, as is seen in the Icelandic sagas.
 Thus, in the aftermath of the civil wars, a stronger royal power found itself at the top of a more centralized administration. By 1300, the majority of governmental and political positions were filled by the king’s administration. The aristocracy no longer held the kind of sway they enjoyed at the beginning of the wars. Gone were the days they could push their agendas on weak kings. In essence, any potential threat from the aristocracy was eliminated by indirectly forcing them to join the king’s ranks[20]. The king strengthened his position, but the extent of his power over the aristocracy remains vague. This ambiguity is crucial to Bagge’s argument against putting too much weight on the sagas’ presentation of defiant aristocracy. It is easy for readers and scholars alike to fall into a romantic trap of class struggle. Kalv Arnason, Einarr Þambarskelfir, and the Birchlegs are incredibly fascinating and can easily be seen in a Marxist light in the sagas. As Bagge reminds us, however, the sources cannot be taken at face value for we may miss the bigger picture hiding behind our educated assumptions.


[1]Bagge, Sverre. From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway, c. 900-1350. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010. 12
[2] Sturluson, Snorri, translated by Lee M. Hollander. Heimskringla. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964. 170-374.
[3] Bagge. From Viking Stronghold.  23.
[4] Winroth, Anders. The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and Missionaries in the Remaking of the Northern Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 138-145
[5] Bagge, Sverre and Sæbjørg Walaker Nordiede. “The kingdom of Norway.” Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Ed. Nora Berend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 121-166.
[6] Bagge and Nordiede. “The kingdom of Norway.” 121-166.
[7] Berend. “Introduction.” Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Ed. Nora Berend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 1-45.
[8] Berend. “Introduction.” 19.
[9] Sturluson. Heimskringla. 206-214.
[10] Sturluson. Heimskringla. 209-515.
[11] Bagge, Sverre. Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 64-68.
[12] Bagge. Society and Politics. 70.
[13] Sturluson. Heimskringla. 479.
[14] Sturluson. Heimskringla. 59-97.
[15] Winroth. The Conversion of Scandinavia. 141-144.
[16] Sturluson. Heimskringla. 610-641.
[17] Bagge. Society and Politics. 64-65.
[18] The King’s Mirror trans. by Lawrence Marcellus Larson. New York: The American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1917. p. 167-180.
[19] Berend. “Introduction.” 6-10.
[20] Brégaint, David. Vox regis: Royal Communication in High Medieval Norway. Trondheim: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2014. Online, available from <>

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