Medieval times may seem dusty and distant, but we are surrounded by the Middle Ages in many different ways in our daily lives.
Trondheim is an old city that has existed since the Middle Ages, which the Nidaros Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Court vividly remind us of. The city’s millennium was celebrated with much festivity in 1997.
Now a new 1000-year anniversary is approaching. The battle at Stiklestad where King Olav Haraldsson fell will be celebrated with a “national celebration” in 2030. Olav’s canonization became a significant factor in the development of Norwegian society over the centuries.
As expected, the upcoming anniversary has triggered discussions. Politician Mímir Kristjánsson has pushed back against what he perceives as the celebration’s attempt to set Norway’s “beginning” at the Battle of Stiklestad and thus forget Harald Hårfagre and the Battle of Hafrsfjord.
Adressa journalist Terje Eidsvåg believes that Stiklestad event does not need to be inflated, and that, in his words, “Trønder megalomania” would benefit from a little “poking” criticism of the anniversary. The discussion around the upcoming event is just another example of how the Middle Ages surround us and are used and interpreted in different ways – and are still relevant.
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Society has kept historical memory alive in the form of traditions, monuments, symbols and rituals, and the subject of history has developed in parallel into an independent academic discipline.
Academics whose work focuses on the Middle Ages do not “own” history, but they have a responsibility to deliver scientifically based research about the past. This understanding must occur in dialogue with society’s recollection of history. Planning a national celebration a thousand years after the Battle of Stiklestad shows how medieval history, long after the most intensive nation-building in the 19th century, is still important for how we understand and define Norway and what is Norwegian.
The Faculty of Humanities (HF) at NTNU houses one of the country’s largest research groups on the Middle Ages and wants to strengthen its overall research efforts as 2030 approaches.
The research initiative has been named the Medieval Centre. The name does not refer to a physical centre, but rather to a stronger focus on coordinating research, teaching and disseminating Middle Age history in all its diversity at NTNU. Disseminating information to the public and collaborating with institutions like museums and others will be a priority.
NTNU aims to make a mark and become a stronger centre of expertise in medieval research in the years leading up to 2030. As scholars in this field, we hope to be able to contribute our research to the anniversary.
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The millennial celebration emphasizes the traditions linked to St. Olav, but the Middle Ages and thus the expertise of the faculty entail so much more. The initiative will therefore also work with the larger picture of the Middle Ages, both Norwegian and European, of which the Olav tradition is a part. The Middle Ages surround us in many ways even today.
Physical memories can be found in burial mounds and village castles from the Viking Age and even earlier, and we have preserved buildings such as Our Lady’s Church and Nidaros Cathedral from later in the Middle Ages. Especially in churches, many objects have been preserved and show how our ancestors expressed themselves artistically.
The Norwegian language has changed a lot over time, and place names in particular can contain words that have long since passed out of everyday use. In recent times, medieval names have been revived and used, such as the Nidaros diocese and Frostating Court of Appeal. Runes were in use in the Nordic countries longer than the Latin alphabet has been used so far.
New runic inscriptions are constantly appearing in archaeological excavations, and expertise is needed to understand the ongoing finds.
Whether more or less consciously, we are surrounded by the Middle Ages. In cultural life, the Nordic Middle Ages have hardly ever been more popular than now. Norse literature is still well known and read, and through adaptations their content lives on in new forms.
Computer games, films and TV series take motifs from Nordic myths and the Nordic medieval period. Historical events from the Middle Ages are often used – and misused – in political argumentation in our time. A current example is how Vladimir Putin misuses the Middle Ages to deny Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent nation.
Historical accuracy varies greatly both in popular culture and political propaganda. This is less consequential for fiction, but up-to-date research and communication are crucial in order to have access to scholarly founded perceptions of what the Middle Ages might have been like.
At NTNU, many researchers work with different aspects of the Middle Ages, in subjects such as history, archaeology, art history, language, music and philosophy.
As the British medieval historian John H. Arnold points out, medieval studies are today a place for discussion, debate and passionate argumentation. Such studies are expected to be interdisciplinary, where national traditions are inserted into an international framework. NTNU’s medieval initiative is working along these lines towards 2030.
This Viewpoint article has previously appeared in Adresseavisen.