Saturday, June 18, 2005

History in a Nutshell

June 13
On the bus. All day. Heading North.

Todd Nichol set himself a daunting task. The Fram! Fram! and Valhalla groups had both experienced one part of “Norway in a Nutshell,” a popular whirlwind tour through some of Norway’s most famous scenery. The part was the Flåm Railway, a 20-km, steepest-grade train ride atop a mountain.

Alas, the popularity of Norway in a Nutshell has turned the once remote village of Flåm into a tatty tourist trap. Cruise ships and coaches disgorge tourists who mooch through the shops, looking at the same souvenirs found everywhere else tourists gather. With the exception of inexpensive, divine ice cream, the squawking flocks eat mostly bad, overpriced food.

The task Todd set himself was to deliver “Norwegian History in a Nutshell” — 798 to 2005 in a half hour. It provided useful background for the coming days’ events in Stiklestad and Trondheim — and a good deal of levity on the coach as Todd fairly squirmed at not being able to regale us with the details that turn history into great storytelling.

You probably don’t have even a half an hour for Norwegian history. So here’s the ultra condensed version, i.e. as fast as I could type, errors included, while Todd talked.

In the beginning
Before 800 Norway had a subsistence, hunting, gathering, war-making culture. In the 790’s Norway raided a monastery in Lindesfarne. News spread like fire about pirates from the North.

“Viking” is an occupational term closest to pirates. They were small farmers on the coast who put their crops in, recruited a gang, went to sea, raided, pillaged, returned home, put their crops in, and so on. Vikings were not the only “pirates” about, but they were very good at it, which made them feared throughout Europe. They went after monasteries and churches because they were repositories of wealth. They took what they could carry off: goods, slaves, cattle. Eventually they even took armies to Europe.

This lasted about 200 years, then stopped rather suddenly: they had become Christians and had “joined” Europe (as much as Norwegians ever do; they’re still holding out against joining the EU). Essentially, they had learned they could be bought off. They went in strength to challenge the increasingly strong rulers in Europe and allowed themselves to be bought off. It became easier to trade than to steal, and there were other sources of wealth.

They had become Christians through influence from, among others, England, Germany, and Denmark through the work of sailors, chieftains, missionaries, and merchants who prized obedience. This trend was well started by 1000.

The modern Norwegian nation began to evolve when one powerful king asserted himself over smaller kings: Harald Hårfagre (the fair-haired). He was followed by Olav Trygvasson, who was particularly effective at subordinating lesser kings. He was also an advocate of forcible conversion.

This Olav is one of the fabled figures of Norwegian history. The Battle of Svolda in the Baltic was his end. Refusing to allow himself to be killed, he leapt from his ship in full armor. Some didn’t believe he’d died. Legends sprang up.

We would hear more about Olav Haraldsson (St. Olav) later in preparation for Trondheim. In short, he also had to fight for control of the land, and he never won any of his important battles. He had become Christian as a young Viking in England. He asserted strong centralized rule in Norway for a time. Wealthy landowners weren’t keen on this, and the pagans weren’t fond of his “convert or die” approach. Together they drove Olav Haraldsson out.

When a Norwegian king died (there were many, simultaneously), Olav saw his opening and returned from exile in Russia. He started his re-taking of Norway in Trøndelag because resistance to him was greatest there. In keeping with his practice of losing most of his important battles, he was killed in 1030 in Stiklestad. He was buried by the Nid River in Trondheim. Alas, people wound up regretting killing him because the Danes came and took over.

The period from about 1030 to 1130 was one of unusual peace for the Middle Ages. Norway prospered. The population grew and the nation began to adhere.

A century of civil wars began in 1130. A king became king by killing the king ahead of him, by succeeding in battle or being chosen by the people. Not exactly a formula for stability. One Svere Sigurdson claimed to be a descendent of Harald Hårfarge (kings had lots of children; some of them were legitimate.) The inventor of guerilla warfare, he could fight and read. He set off a century of civil war in which contending parties struggled for rule of Norway AND against the church (aka Rome). This was the time of the birkebeiner. Contrary to his behavior, Svere advised his son Haakon to come to terms with the church.

At beginning of 13th century, accession rules were instituted along the lines of the prevailing European pattern: eldest legitimate son, crowned by the church. This served well for 100 years.

Mighty Margrethe
In 1319 the thrones of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden were vacant, and there were difficult succession issues. Margrethe of Denmark was one of the most formidable women in history. By marrying the heir to the Norwegian throne, Haakon, and giving birth to the heir to the Danish throne, Olav, she locked up two of the three. I missed how she managed Sweden, but she did.

She kept the three kingdoms united for a good while, even after Haakon and Olav died young. Naturally, the arrangement was given to succession difficulties. In addition, the rest of Europe feared a united Scandinavia.

Dark Times
The Black Death, started by a rat in a load of wheat in the Bergen harbor, put a stop to almost everything, including most of the nobility and clergy. Norway’s decline was further hastened in the 1500’s with the Protestant Reformation. Norway wanted no part of it because Denmark imposed it on Norway, where there was no unrest against Catholicism.

The period of Danish rule has been called “400 years of the dark.” (Some of our group going through a history exhibit at Maihaugen heard a Danish woman object.).

In the 1800's Norway experienced an energetic and powerful national revival. A Norwegian language began to develop. Norwegians searched out their folk tales. They cultivated and reinvented arts, painting, carving, music. Evangelical Lutheranism revived because it taught people to think they were someone.

In the 19th century there was a popular reawakening of religious and cultural life. Ever notice that Norwegians and the Irish always tell you they are? That’s because of their histories of subjugation.

1814 and the constitution were covered in other lectures. For the Viking group that took the form of a tour of Eidsvoll, where the constitution was written. What sounds dry got rave reviews.

During WWI, Norway tenuously maintained neutrality. It did export supplies to England and others to support their war efforts.

After the war there was considerable discontent in Norway, Sweden and Germany, with real potential for revolutions. Some sought answers in communism. Anti-monarchy sentiments surfaced.

In the 1920's in Norway the strategy of revolution was abandoned in favor of democracy and vigorous national identity. The linking of national socialism with democratic practices lead to the welfare state that remains in place today.

Today Norway is the third largest oil producer in the world and the largest outside the Middle East. All the oil wealth has been nationalized and is administered by the state. Much of it is in trust. About 20 to 25 years of oil remain. That’s a lot of money, but it’s a turbulent world.

Norway faces the same looming crisis that Germany and France do, though they are closer to the coming storm: the population is aging and the birth rate is falling.

Todd predicts a tip to the left in the next election, resulting in a Red-Green coalition. Todd concluded with a common expression: “Vi få se.” (We shall see.)

As with every seminar by St. Olaf faculty or guest speakers, Study Travelers had lots of questions for Todd – wide ranging, probing, perceptive, and exhibiting the intellectual curiosity that makes Study Travelers great fellow travelers.