King and Queen pieces from the Lewis chessmen, found in the Hebrides, but perhaps made in Trondheim in the 1100s. Photo: Aschehoug Publishing

Medieval Norwegian realm comes under the microscope

Norwegian school children may have learned that Norway was once a superpower. But was Norway really an empire?

From the 1260s until the end of the 1460s Norwegian kings ruled over a realm that stretched from Greenland to Norway, including the Orkney and Shetland islands north of the Scottish mainland, and Jemtland to the east.

Norwegians refer to this great medieval realm as Norgesveldet, and it is perceived as a sort of Norwegian-Atlantic empire. The degree of affiliation to the Norwegian crown varied widely among those areas, however, and a major research project is re-evaluating the concept of Norway as empire.

For this Norwegian-Atlantic empire is a myth.

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Norgesveldet oppfattes som et slags norsk-atlantisk imperium. Men dette Norgesveldet er en myte. Illustrasjon: NTNU

Norway’s medieval realm is perceived as a sort of Norwegian-Atlantic empire. But this empire is a myth. Illustration: NTNU

Tributary lands

In medieval times, the islands west of Norway were called the king’s tributary lands. The question of the political, administrative and legal relationship between the tributary lands and their Norwegian overlord, the king, was central to this research project, which was led by Professor Steinar Imsen of the Department of Historical Studies at NTNU.

According to Imsen, the Norwegian king’s realm was more of a commonwealth than an empire. The tributary lands were not part of Norway, but part of the Norwegian king’s realm. The king’s realm was not a Norwegian national state, but a conglomerate of countries and people.

Icelanders and the peoples of other tributary lands paid taxes to the Norwegian king, and they were the king’s subjects on a par with Norwegians. The dependencies’ shared laws and governance structures were built on the same model.

Steinar Imsen. Foto: NTNU

Steinar Imsen. Photo: NTNU

The tributary lands mostly ruled themselves within the limits set by the king, but they could hardly be called royal dictates.

The tributary lands’ resistance to unpopular royal orders, especially among the Icelanders, was taken into account by the crown.

The crown was not alone in binding the tributary lands to Norway. The church carried equal importance and, under the leadership of the Archbishop of Trondheim, had established itself on the islands north and west of Scotland and in the North Atlantic as early as 1152.

Scant research

The myth of Norway’s great medieval realm emerged after independence from Denmark in 1814.

“The dream of a great and mighty Norway in times past was an important element in Norwegian nation-building,” says Imsen. “Today, two hundred years after the union’s dissolution, we can allow ourselves a more down to earth attitude towards our national heritage,” he says.

Since 2010, 33 scientists from ten different countries and with multidisciplinary backgrounds set out to research what kind of political system this medieval Norwegian realm really was. The project, which was funded by the Norwegian Research Council, concluded at the end of 2014 and has resulted in five books and a PhD dissertation.

The results are summarized in a stunning book entitled Rex Insularum, which is the fifth in the series. The other four books deal with key aspects of the medieval Norwegian realm, such as taxation, legislation, and the relationship between the monarchy and the church.

Fem bøker og en doktoravhandling er resultatet av forskningen. Foto: NTNU

Research yielded five books and a doctoral dissertation. Photo: NTNU

The doctoral thesis focused particularly on the Orkney and Shetland Isles as a Norse “frontier” from about 1200 to 1468 and 1469, when the islands were pawned to the Scottish king. All the books are written in English.

“There has been little research on the history of the tributary lands after 1260, until now,” says Imsen. He assumes this may be because Norway simultaneously oriented itself increasingly towards its Nordic neighbours and the Baltic region in the east, and by 1319 entered into a number of political unions with Sweden and Denmark.

“Norwegian historiography often associates the period after 1319 with national decline,” Imsen says.

Icelanders too have shied away from their history after 1262, when they view Iceland’s subjugation to the Norwegian king as a loss of political independence. Iceland’s ancient people’s rule was replaced by a foreign power.

What was medieval Norway?

“Medieval Norway wasn’t geographically identical to today’s Norway,” says Imsen.

That is why mainland Norway’s fringe areas, such as Jemtland and Finnmark, are included in the survey, which in many ways has centred on the relationship between the periphery and centre in the Norwegian crown realm. Norway’s national territory today is a result of peace negotiations with Sweden in 1645 and 1660, and of border agreements with Sweden in 1751 and Russia in 1826.

(Denmark retained Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands in the Treaty of Kiel in 1814; at that time they were referred to as Norwegian dependencies.)

Håkon Håkonsson var konge da Grønland og Island ga seg inn under Norge i 1261 og 1262. Illustrasjon: Arkivverket

Håkon Håkonsson was king when Greenland and Iceland submitted to Norwegian rule in 1261 and 1262. Illustration: The National Archival Services of Norway

Jemtland, for example, did not become a full-fledged part of Norway until 1570, although the inhabitants had been forced to accept the rule of the Norwegian king as early as 1170. Yet Jemtland was part of the Archdiocese of Uppsala from 1164 to 1570.

Historic Finnmarken (today Nord-Troms and Finnmark) likewise fell outside Norway’s boundaries, although the Sami people paid tribute to the Norwegian king. Unlike the inhabitants of tributary lands who also paid tribute to the king, the Sami were not regarded as royal subjects.

Nordkalotten (Cap of the North) was a vast stateless area with intersecting taxation regimes (Norwegian, Russian and Swedish) until the final boundaries were determined in modern times.

Norway originally reached up to about Malangen (in current Troms county) in the 900s, and expanded northward along the coast to Varangerfjorden in the centuries that followed. Construction of the Vardøhus fortress in 1320 marks the northeastern extremity of the Norwegian kingdom in the Middle Ages.

Not an absolute monarchy

What was the king’s power in the Norwegian tributary lands and fringe regions?

Kings inherited the kingdom, but a new king still had to be hailed by his subjects. This happened regularly both in Norway and abroad in tributary lands. But the king was bound by the law, and his rule was not absolute. Although also the lawmaker, the king had to take into account what people in the tributary lands might think.

Kings also held judicial power, and in murder cases Icelanders had to travel to Norway to obtain the king’s peace. The king levied taxes and other tributes, but the tax level was not particularly high, and in Iceland’s case taxation was regulated by law.

A relatively large portion of the tax revenues remained in the tributary lands to finance the local government administration. Due to the difficulty of controlling these countries from the distant political centre in Norway, tributary lands had their own administrative and judiciary bodies.

Local men filled most of these local positions. The tributary lands effectively evolved into provincial municipalities, which became more autonomous throughout the late medieval period. Essentially, the kingdom developed a federal structure, while local identity was strengthened.

The Norse tradition

The tributary lands were increasingly ruled by the king in Copenhagen after 1400, as was Norway. The link to Norway became weaker in the second half of the 1400s, both politically and administratively.

Cultural exchanges also loosened, in part because the shared language between Norway and some tributary lands, like Iceland, diverged.

But Norwegian law still applied all the way to 1611, even after the Shetland and Orkney Isles became Scottish in 1468 and 1469. The tributary lands largely preserved their old municipal arrangements well into the modern era.