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Centre of Excellence – research on the Middle Ages:

When Norway became part of Europe

As early as the Middle Ages, European influence was already shaping Norway in critical ways. Researchers are looking at how Christianity altered Norwegian policies, laws and culture and how the elite became part of a shared European culture.

These questions have been an important focus for the Centre for Medieval Studies (CMS) at the University of Bergen and for the School of Mission and Theology in Stavanger. The centre was among the initial 13 Norwegian Centres of Excellence (SFF) established. After ten years, its activities as an SFF centre are drawing to a close.

Photo: Helge Hansen Our international approach has placed Norway on the map in terms of European research on the Middle Ages, says Professor Sverre Bagge. (Photo: Helge Hansen) Internationalising research

With its objective of identifying basic features of the europeanisation of Europe, the CMS has incorporated a wider international perspective into Norwegian research on the Middle Ages.

“There has been little focus on the role of Europe as a concept in research onmedieval Norway. Previously, research concentrated more on the national situation on its own – both for Norway and for other countries,” states the director of the centre, Professor Sverre Bagge.

“Our SFF status has helped us to recruit a much larger number of international researchers than is normally the case in other humanities research environments in Norway. We have put greater focus on comparative studies of conditions in different countries, which puts us in a better position to determine which features of our society originated here in Norway and which came from elsewhere. It is also clear that our international approach has placed Norway on the map in terms of European research on the Middle Ages,” he says.

Shaping the map of Europe

During its ten years as an SFF centre, the CMS has studied the interaction between the periphery and the centre of medieval Europe, with special focus on four areas: state formation and political culture, religion, the arrival of writing and construction of the past.

“Even though we are presumably witnessing the end of Western dominance at present, we must not play down the ?miracle of Europe'. One part of this miracle is the formation of states as independent, relatively stable nations in competition with one another. This laid the foundation for a dynamic and change that has been instrumental in the rise of democracy,” says Dr Bagge.

He goes on to explain that although the situation in the Middle Ages diverged from this in many ways, the tendency to make those who governed accountable was already in place: opposition was allowed, but not murder; the order of succession was set and authority had to be legitimised.

“Christianisation and the establishment of monarchies in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe were important aspects of the new system of state formation. Political scientist and historian Charles Tilly from the US, among others, has made the claim that statehood in Europe was a result of ‘everyone fighting against everyone else’ where the strongest prevailed. At the CMS, however, we have proven that ideology and law played a vital role both within individual countries and in relations between them.”

Photo: CMS During its ten years as an SFF centre, the CMS has studied the interaction between the periphery and the centre of medieval Europe, with special focus on four areas: state formation and political culture, religion, the arrival of writing and construction of the past. (Photo: CMS)

The seed more important than the soil

The comparative research carried out at the centre has provided grounds for overturning one of the main theses of influential Norwegian historian Jens Arup Seip. Dr Seip believed that external influences were of little importance in the creation of the Norwegian state during the Middle Ages compared with local factors. He used the metaphor of the Norwegian soil being of much greater importance than the Christian, European seed.

“Our research shows the opposite to be true: the seed was more important than the soil. And, Christianity did more than just introduce a new religion; the church also exerted influence over the king in terms of both governing and enforcing law. Norwegian legislation was adopted from Canon law, not from England or our own King Olaf II Haraldsson (later Olaf the Saint). Our research shows this also to be the case for the oldest Norwegian Ecclesiastical Laws.”

Although the sagas claim otherwise, the fact is that writing did not exist in Norway until just before the start of the 11th century, according to Dr Bagge. Nonetheless, he points out, the unique style and content of the sagas of the Norwegian kings represent distinct and original Norwegian contributions. The sagas explain historical events more on the basis of the political situation than is commonly found in regions with a more exclusive, aristocratic culture than Norway.

Photo: CMS MAGNUS LAGABØTE: In the course of the Middle Ages, Norway became a kingdom with a nationwide administration based on a European model. King Magnus VI (also known as King Magnus the Lawgiver; reigned 1263-1280) organised a large-scale project to modernise the law code, including a new national law in 1274. Portrait of King Magnus VI from Stavanger Cathedral. (Photo: CMS) Home sweet home?

“We had a hypothesis that the periphery exerted considerable influence on Europe’s centre, but we have not found much evidence to support this. On the other hand, we do find original contributions from the periphery such as Konungs skuggsiá (the King's Mirror) by an unknown author and the Gesta Danorum (?Deeds of the Danes') by Saxo Grammaticus that became part of a shared European culture,” states Dr Bagge.

“Given the limited communication capacity of the time, there was more exchange of people and ideas taking place in the Middle Ages than one might expect,” he continues. “The reach of the shared culture that bound together Europe’s elite was surprising – to the extent that it can be said that modern European cooperation has deep roots in the Middle Ages.”

Examining how these new cultural influences were received in the periphery of Europe has also been a central part of the centre’s activities. Research in this area has revealed two different views in medieval Norway. Some wished to prove that Nordic culture was essentially a parallel to European culture and tried to construct a Nordic history dating back to the Romans. Others saw it as a cultural upgrade when foreign culture, chivalric poetry and courtly customs were introduced into the Norwegian court during the 1200s.

Committed to recruitment

The CMS has had an active strategy for researcher recruitment, and has focused particularly on on post-doctoral fellowships.

“It is critical for the training of future researchers and for further developing the field that our community comprises both young and established researchers from Norway and abroad, all carrying out research on the Middle Ages. As an SFF centre, we have been able to hire a number of fellowship-holders and young researchers who have been responsible for a large part of the centre’s research. Many of them have expertise that we previously lacked in Norway. In addition, we have established constructive interdisciplinary collaboration between the fields of philology, history, archaeology and theology while also building closer contacts with key international groups,” explains Dr Bagge.

When the period as an SFF centre comes to a close, research on the Middle Ages at the University of Bergen will be maintained by five researchers. Under the umbrella of topographies and networks they will direct their interdisciplinary research towards the development of cities and towards technology and production, oral and written culture and historiography and historical accounts.

The Centre for Medieval Studies (CMS)
  • Objective: To identify fundamental features of the europeanisation of Europe in the interaction between the centre and periphery. 
  • Participants: The University of Bergen is the host institution. The School of Mission and Theology in Stavanger is a partner. 
  • Annual allocation from the Research Council of Norway: NOK 6 million.
  • Other funding from the Research Council: Total NOK 9.2 million.
  • Total annual budget: NOK 22.2 million, including funding under Nordforsk’s
  • Nordic Centre of Excellence scheme (2005-2010).
  • Total man-years: Approximately 19.5.


Written by:
Christian Lund/Else Lie. Translation: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann
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