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  • From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway, c. 900–1350 by Sverre Bagge
  • Ármann Jakobsson
Sverre Bagge. From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom: State Formation in Norway, c. 900–1350. Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010. Pp. 441.

In this voluminous study, Professor Sverre Bagge examines the emergence of the medieval kingdom of Norway, which was engulfed by the Kalmar Union at the end of the fourteenth century, and only later re-emerged as modern Norway at the beginning of the twentieth century. The book is a part of two related research projects, “Periphery and Centre in Medieval Europe” and “The Nordic Countries and the Medieval Expansion of Europe: New Interpretations of a Common Past,” between the universities of Bergen, Gothenburg, Odense, and Helsinki. Bagge himself has served as the Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Bergen, and the book is in many ways one of the conclusions of a brilliant and prolific career spanning four decades, as evidenced in four pages of its forty-page bibliography.

Although Bagge identifies the state formation of Norway as a process that took four centuries, his main focus is on the last century, beginning in 1240. During this period, Norway wound up in the vanguard among [End Page 236] European Christian kingdoms, stronger in many ways than the other Scandinavian monarchies. Norway then collapsed as a state in less than a century, eventually becoming effectively dominated by Denmark. Curiously, at the beginning of the period under scrutiny, Norway seems to have been a far less developed monarchy than neighboring Denmark.

The early stages of the period from 900 to 1350 in the history of Norway are significantly murkier than those later in the period, as most of the sources are far removed from the events depicted therein. Scholarly opinions remain divided on whether to accept Skaldic poetry, for example, as more or less contemporary, in spite of its thirteenth-century preservation within prose sagas, with Bagge inclined to view it as contemporary to its alleged period of production. It is perhaps inevitable that, although Bagge is very much interested in the continuity between the early and later parts of the period, the book has far less to say about the phase before 1130 than about the ensuing centuries. In contrast, it offers numerous detailed discussions of royal and ecclesiastical administration in both the twelfth and, in particular, the thirteenth century.

Sverre Bagge shows how, during the period between 900 and 1350, the kingdom of Norway was a part of a “Europeanization” process: Christianity gradually took hold, and literacy replaced oral tradition, culminating with the formation of a high medieval state with some degree of bureaucracy, although much smaller in scale than what was later seen in Early Modern Europe. The ingredients of this Europeanization are thus similar to what earlier scholars regarded as the Medieval Renaissance (Charles H. Haskins), the discovery of the individual (Colin Morris), or the making of the Middle Ages (R. W. Southern). Although each generation of historians seems to require a new term to describe this shift between Early Medieval and High Medieval Europe, the existence of the shift itself can hardly be disputed, and Bagge’s main thesis thus rests on solid ground. With respect to the history of Norway, he is also, to a degree, covering similar ground to the earlier work of Knut Helle, but Bagge’s approach is less strictly functionalist, and is more inspired by the history of mentalities and works of sociologists such as Norbert Elias; Bagge pays more attention to the complex relationship between ideology and practice. He also stands in opposition to Kåre Lunden’s neo-Marxist interpretation. The thorough and balanced review of previous scholarship is, in fact, one of the most valuable assets of this study.

In the first chapter, Bagge discusses the emergence of Norway as a kingdom, and in the second, he focuses on war, military organization, and social change, with particular emphasis on the continuity of the military levy (leidang) from the Viking Age to the age of Hákon V. He points [End Page 237] to the importance of towns and the relatively low...


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