- Cross and Scepter: The Rise of the Scandinavian Kingdoms from the Vikings to the Reformation by Sverre Bagge
Sverre Bagge, most of whose previous publications have been about early Norwegian history, explains that he was persuaded to write this book by his recent experience as director of two Nordic research centers with participants from the universities of Bergen, Helsinki, Gothenburg, and Odense. The result, especially the discussion of early-medieval developments, is disappointing. It is surprising that his contacts in these centers did not keep him up-to-date. The main weakness is that Sweden is virtually ignored before 1250 because, Bagge claims, the sources are too meager. It is true that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Swedes wrote far less about their early history than the Danes, Icelanders, and Norwegians, but Bagge makes no attempt to glean information from the surviving texts and ignores the evidence of more than 2000 legible runic inscriptions, many thousands of coins, and the few relevant skaldic verses.
The two brief references to Olof Skötkonung (pp. 33, 55) are totally misleading: Bagge states that he was “probably a historical person,” whose main area “seems to have been in the west.” The well-attested fact that he minted coins in Sigtuna for more than twenty years is not mentioned. Bagge attempts to justify his neglect of Sweden by claiming that it was not a united kingdom until “around 1250,” when it began to develop “a relatively stable monarchy” (pp. 33, 165–66). The unity of the Kingdom was, however, not doubted by Pope Alexander III when, in 1164, he created the Archbishopric of Uppsala with a province composed of five (soon six) bishoprics that formed the kingdom ruled by Karl Sverkerson, rex Sveorum et Gothorum. For several generations the kingship was contested by two dynasties that traced their descent from the twelfth-century kings Sverker and Erik. Bagge’s claim (p. 56) that the Sverker dynasty was extinct after 1222 is misleading: it continued in the female line. Attempts to unite them by marriage succeeded in 1250 with the succession of Valdemar, son of Birger Jarl (descendant of Sverker) and Ingeborg (descendant of Erik).
The neglect of Sweden means that there is no discussion of the marriage alliances and other links between all three kingdoms and across the Baltic that were crucially important factors in the twelfth century and that no attention is paid to Birger Jarl’s predecessors as Swedish duces. The discussion of conversion is also disappointing. The identification of the missionary Poppo as Folkmar, later archbishop of Cologne, is ignored, as are the serious doubts that have been cast on the earlier interpretation of the royal complex at Jelling that he accepts. The comparison with Anglo-Saxon England is unhelpful; to say that its conversion was accomplished [End Page 609] “without any military or political pressure” (p. 69) ignores the decisive role of the Franks.
Very little attention is paid to towns, trade, and the source and distribution of the wealth on which power depended. Bagge makes good use of thirteenth-century Norwegian texts, but does not even mention the Swedish Um styrelse konunga ok höfdinga or the Danish Compendium Saxonis, both written c. 1300. The Compendium was created to turn Saxo’s tendency upside down since it praises King Valdemar at the cost of Absalon, archbishop of Lund.
At least two serious errors should have been corrected: Olof Skötkonung never paid tribute to Cnut, but probably to Svein Forkbeard (p. 55), and Dalarna is not in “northern” Sweden (p. 251). It is generally praiseworthy when scholars make their own work widely known, but in this case, one can only deplore that an English-speaking audience is expected to read so much about medieval Scandinavia that is outdated, misleading, or simply wrong.