Secondary Sources for Medieval Scandinavia

Tamsin Hekala

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How to present the mass of current secondary literature on Medieval Scandinavia to a new reader? A difficult but important question. A traditional bibliographic essay provides a list of books and articles with comments about each item. Yet such a format assumes access to a specialist or that the reader is advanced enough as a researcher to anticipate theoretical splits and pitfalls within a field. A novice can easily become mired in those interpretive differences. So it is more useful to most readers to provide general information about theoretical filters than a lengthy list of specific books and articles currently available. With that in mind, this essay on secondary sources for Medieval Scandinavia will provide a basic overview of the field, the major theoretical filters, and a selection of representative authors and works in English that are common knowledge to a scholar familiar with the field.

The study of Medieval Scandinavia is divided into categories based on the divisions found in the basic primary sources: public documents, literature, and artifacts. Historians concerned themselves with the public documents, literary scholars and linguists with the literature and language, and archaeologists with artifacts. Although there are discrete discipline lines between fields, there is also a great deal of informational and theoretical borrowing between disciplines. Within each of the major disciplines are subspecialties and schools of interpretive theory which provide radically different positions on the basic primary source material. At various times categories of primary sources or theoretical schools have colored all scholarly considerations regardless of discipline. While, at others there were internal splits that consumed most of the discussions to the exclusion of anything else.

An understanding of an author's theoretical school, in many respects, is more important than the data discussed by that author. Different theoretical stands can present the same data to the reader in ways that are totally divergent, often contradictory, inherently confusing, and occasionally extremely conflictive. Interpretation popularity often cuts across discipline lines when one field's interpretive construct is applied by another discipline. Ignorance of theoretical patterns provides ample opportunity for research shipwrecks. Scholarly position past and present is critical for correctly assessing any secondary work.

Scholarly activity on Medieval Scandinavia is presently in a reconsideration phase. Such a phase is usual in any healthy field. Reconsideration of former scholarship is the vehicle for including new information or adapting new theory to an established body of source material. Currently there are several extremely active new approaches which are contending with an established status quo of interpretation. The newer information and interpretation is based upon new archaeological techniques and finds, and the first forays of Annalists into the study of Medieval Scandinavia. New schools of thought have not yet fully entered the mainstream of popular interpretation in the United States. That interpretation for the last twenty years has been literary theory usually deconstructionism and post-modernism. However, future views will likely shift to the newer approaches if the patterns of the field hold true.

Fields Of Theoretical Thought: Literary

Literary material has been extremely important in the study of Medieval Scandinavia. Linguistically the Icelandic family sagas provided a window upon the past not often found in Medieval material. Socially the world portrayed in the literature was interesting and quite at odds with the horrid barbarian raiders found in the public documents. It was also a world not dependent upon Christianity for its ethics. Many of the strongest nineteenth century images of Native Americans were found as well in the Scandinavian literature. Icelandic sagas were at the right place and right time to be popular with an educated public.


Sagas hold a special place in the study and evolution of theoretical approaches to Medieval Scandinavia. To this day the study of saga material still plays a major role in the consideration of Medieval Scandinavia, the Vikings, and the Norse world. During the nineteenth century literary and historical interpretation were virtually identical because the scholarly theory of the day maintained that the sagas were contemporary eyewitness accounts of tenth century events. Later, when paleography placed saga authorship around the mid-twelfth to mid-thirteenth century, the interpretation of the day was sagas were oral stories written down at a later period. How historically accurate the sagas are remains an issue for literary interpretation. Historical interpretation regards sagas as a useful narrative source subject to the problems of any narrative source (Sawyer & Sawyer 21-24)

Literary interpretation currently tends to fall into several broad categories: post modern, deconstructionist, nationalist, and philological. In the United States the predominate theories are post-modernism and deconstructionism which are often mixed with Marxist political theory. Post-modernism focuses on the contemporary dilemmas of modern life particularly alienation, self, and the underlying causes of changes or development. In essence it is a film noire view of literature, society, and man's place in the world. Deconstructionism requires that "each element of a literary text is examined for its possible signification when isolated from preconceptions imposed from without." (Northrup Fry 138) Each element of a text, word, phrase, or image is a sign to the hidden meaning of the text.

While the deconstructionist and post-modernist assessments of literature contain intriguing questions, from an historical perspective they also contain inherent difficulties. The tendency in both models is for an extreme application of the theory to a limited selection of the source material. Current application of the methodology usually results in an interesting question coupled with a presentation that is present-minded and dismissive of the historical context of the document. Most historians have difficulty with the isolationist aspect of the standard deconstructionist or post-modernist presentation.

Another interpretation that has been fashionable is Marxism. Marxist interpretation of literature maintains that the material reflects a social conflict inherent in any society. As such the information is either flawed because it was written to maintain the status quo which is repressive or that it was written with sub rosa hints at the desires of the repressed. Classical Marxist theory (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis) is useful for the consideration of single events or systems considered in isolation. Current Marxist interpretation is often centered upon class or population repression models. The value of those models must be judged within the context of the realities of Medieval social structure rather than the Post Industrial Revolutionary world of the contemporary reader.

While Marxist models focus on class struggles, nationalist models laid claim to Icelandic sagas as part of a nation's glorious past. In general the image generated by the nationalist models was heroic, romantic, and tribal. The heroic past often was used to justify contemporary activity such as imperialistic expansion. The nationalist model was created as part of the continent wide reaction to Napoleon after his defeat at Waterloo and the nostalgic look back to simpler times that was a response to the Industrial Revolution.

Nationalism, in part because it was a reaction and in part because it emphasizes national connections to the data, is one of the most pervasive biases in the entire field. A study based on an area has a predisposition of interest. That predisposition is usually disposed toward the positive or unique aspects of a place or a group. Nationalistic predisposition while positive is also a bias. The study of Medieval Scandinavia has had several extreme nationalist interpretations that require comment. Teutonic supremacy is an extreme form of nationalism. Teutonic supremacy in Eastern European studies is Normanism and the proSlavic nationalism is Anti-Normanism. Teutonic or Aryan supremacy was also part of the fascist and Nazi propaganda mill. As long as one is aware that it is likely to be lurking in the background nationalism can be reduced to a minor factor rather than an overwhelming force.

Language And Linguistics

Language and linguistic study of Old Icelandic has been a staple of Medieval Scandinavian studies for almost two centuries. Included in linguistic studies are the origins and derivation of words over time. In Scandinavia there are also place name studies as a category of philology and linguistics. So not only are there studies on language, definitive dictionaries, but also detailed atlases which indicate either Norse settlement sites, such as those found in England in the Danelaw, or settlement names which indicate date of settlement or division patterns which are linked to specific centuries.


A special branch of linguistic and language study is that of runeology. Since there were several distinct phases in the development of the runic alphabet along with distinct regional variations, runes are a specialty field. The fairly recent discoveries of new runic inscriptions from places such as Bergen Harbor equipped scholars with new data which in turn altered the field. Until quite recently runes were thought to be used only ritually or on memorial monuments. Excavations in Norway during the 1970s and 1980s radically altered scholarly thought about runes and how they were used by the Norse. The new information indicated a high literacy in the general population, while the subjects reflected the correspondence, mercantile transactions, and concerns of daily urban life.


Historical consideration of Medieval Scandinavia has some peculiarities not found in other areas of Europe. The periodization differs from the rest of Europe. Standard periodization is 500-1000 Early Middle Ages, 1000-1300 High Middle Ages, and 1300 1500 Late Middle Ages. Medieval Scandinavia however has the following periodization: Late Iron Age 500-800, the Viking Age 800-1100, Medieval 1100-1300, and Late Medieval 1300-1500. The differences are understandable since there are few written sources about Scandinavia prior to the ninth century. Ninth century sources outside of Scandinavia are about the Norse raiders. After the Northern lands were consolidated into kingdoms and converted to Christianity they could then come into step with the rest of Europe.

Traditional historical divisions: prosipography, economics, diplomatics, and institutional while existing also tend to be slightly blurred until the Middle Ages proper. While there have been some subjects which are standardly presented in isolation, such as Icelandic society or literature, it is far more usual to find a regional consideration of a topic in an historical study. Thus, a study of Icelandic trade patterns includes interaction with Norway and the impact of English mercantile activities over several centuries. Settlement pattern studies are regionally defined as area units crossing contemporary boundaries instead of isolated examples within the confines of a contemporary nation. So Medieval Scandinavian studies are both broader and more limited in scope than those of France, England, Germany, or Ireland.

Despite the specifics of the field the traditional historical divisions are those found elsewhere and are determined by the sources. Each has an impact on the study of Medieval Scandinavia whether offered as an individual study or a portion of a larger study. So we find people, money or trade, public or political activities, and institutional activities considered just as they are for the rest of Europe.

Prosipography emphasizes famous people. Biographies and studies of the impact of key individuals upon the events are the grist of the prosipographic mill. Kings and queens, lords and ladies, popes and founders of religious orders are common topics for the prosipographer. In Scandinavia as elsewhere the individuals to study were famous, often wealthy, and powerful. Rulers such as Knut, Harald Fairhair, Harald Hardradi, or Magnus Lawgiver are usual topics for prosipographical studies. The sources for those biographical studies are heavily reliant prior to the twelfth century upon Icelandic literature such as the Heimskringla. That reliance is equally apparent in the theoretical filter of many biographical studies.

Economics, as far as history is concerned, is the study of trade relations between groups or nations. It does not consider except as a means of production related to trade goods or as an overall description of a society's food production methods. So economic history is basically the growth and development of markets. The sources play a great part in economic studies since trade documents: guild lists, ledgers, taxes, and laws pertaining to trade direct the study. Since the Hanseatic League was quite active in Scandinavia there is a considerable body of economic history available.

Diplomatics is the study of Medieval charters and letters. The term diplomatarium is used when referring to a collection of printed or unprinted collections of old public documents. Scandinavian interest in the diplomatic material began in the well before the eighteenth century. As in the rest of Europe the great collections of printed primary source material are a product of nineteenth century scholarship. The Scandinavian diplomatists include Arni Magnusson, Hans Gram, Jakob Langebek, Swen Lagerbring, Grimur Throkelin, Gustav Storm, Andreas Munch, and Rudolf Keyser.

The diplomatic documents are still in the language of origin as are many of the secondary articles and books. For those readers who want an English overview of the Scandinavian diplomatic documents there are two sources: Paetow and the Medieval Scandinavian Encyclopedia article on Diplomatics by Hallvard Mageroy. Since they provide the temporal context diplomatic documents are a necessary portion of any historical work.

Institutional historians consider the development and impact of institutions upon a society. Medieval institutions fall into one of two broad groups: ecclesiastical and secular. Ecclesiastical institutions in Scandinavia, as elsewhere, were connected to Rome and the Papacy. Secular institutions are either political groups, such as monarchs and the nobility or trade confederations such as guilds. It is impossible to consider political activity during the Middle Ages without considering the process of conversion or the impact of the church upon local activities. At least one-third of the documents about any secular situation are likely to be ecclesiastical in origin. So an understanding of theological or church concerns is often crucial to untangling what appears to be a purely secular situation.


Archaeology is the study of a people or culture based upon artifacts. Until quite recently archaeological dating methods were based upon comparative groups. Archaeological information has played an important part in historical considerations of the Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia. Material culture and artifacts account for more than one-third of the data. Any competent work on the Viking Age must consider the information found in archaeology. Since the information has been and is so critical for two fields there is a great deal of data borrowing by historians of archaeological data and theory.

The introduction of new technology such as carbon 14 dating has created a wealth of new information and reassessment. It is now possible to determine obscure social information such as the type of foods in an area, types and ratios of animals, health problems, and climate. Many of the debates surrounding settlement, food production, health, and climate have been subject to radical reassessment in the last 15 years. Pollen studies have supported the statements in the Icelandic sources about trees on Iceland. The number and type of runic material have totally redefined scholarly thought on the nature of Norse society during and after the Viking Age. New techniques promise further information which must impact any historical consideration of Viking Age and Medieval Scandinavia.


Founders of the field of anthropology, such as Morgan, were interested in the structure of Norse society and kinship. It was an understandable interest since early anthropological studies were evolutionary in their approach. Viking Age society was the European equivalent of tribal society seen in the American Plains Indians. Teutonic kinship structure was described as tribal clans much like Iroquois or highland Scots.

Current anthropological studies approach both Medieval Icelandic and contemporary Icelandic society and social structure within the confines of the ethnographic present. The present stand on Icelandic kinship -- current or past -- is that only a member of that society can fully explain it. To the outsider the kinship is both conflictive and contradictory. George Rich has a comprehensive essay about the topic in The Anthropology of Iceland.

New Trends: Social, Annalist, Interdisciplinary

Medieval Scandinavian studies, like the Scandinavian nations, have a tradition of separate trends sometimes allied but often distinct from the more commonly studied areas of England, France, Germany, and Italy. Like any border area there are active local theoretical and informational enclaves that remain largely unknown to outsiders. When European scholars began to study settlement patterns Scandinavianists noted that settlement studies had been around in the North in excess of a decade. The results of those studies had remained unavailable because of Scandinavian publication patterns and language. Much of the information currently filtering into the United States and English literature is rather dated. New technology promises to make the data more accessible even if it remains in the language of origin.

Current trends for the field are those impacted one way or another by technology. Manuscript availability and document studies are active areas with project Runeberg and local manuscript CD collections which will shortly be available online. New technological advances in archaeology have created a renaissance with old programs, such as that at the Aarhus, being refunded, refurbished, and resurrected. The new archaeological data also has resolved old field disputes about historical accuracy of documents and provided new insights into the daily world of the Norse and the Medieval Scandinavian. New technology in geology, demographics, and archaeology has provided grist for interdisciplinary studies in social history. A new crop of scholars is beginning to consider social aspects through the Annalist theoretical filter. All in all the next several decades promise a resurgence in interest outside the confines of Scandinavia proper.

Further Research

For those interested in doing further research on various areas the following are useful resources.

Peter and Birgit Sawyer, MEDIEVAL SCANDINAVIA


The Sawyers provide a balanced historical approach to Medieval Scandinavia and the Viking Age. This book provides a solid overview by noted scholars in the field.

Else Roesdahl has recently been appointed the director of the archaeological section at the Aarhus in Denmark. It is because of her work in the archaeology of the Viking Period that she was selected.

This volume was the first version of a conference held in Iceland. There have been two subsequent versions, an updated and expanded edition based on the conference and George Rich has just published a book based on his conference paper. Anthropology of Iceland is a good representative for the anthropological view of both contemporary and Medieval Iceland. It has all the strengths and weaknesses of the anthropological approach.

Bruce Gelsinger's landmark study on the trade and economic transformations that occurred during the Middle Ages. Although the primary focus is on Iceland it also nicely represents the economic historical approach at its best.

Recent overview of the archaeological information about Viking town sites throughout Europe. Compiled by two noted scholars in the field Helen Clark and Bjorn Ambrosini. There has been a recent second edition.

Jon Johannesson's classic political study of Medieval Iceland. Superseded the earlier work by Knut Gjerset. A good model for a balanced approach, includes historical, archaeological, literary, legal, and geological source material.

Representational work that includes many of the strengths and weaknesses found in the study of the Norse in the East. Newer information is still available primarily in Russian or Swedish.

Du Chaillu's two volume work on the Viking Age has been issued several times. Unequalled for information connecting society and historical information to the literature. Best representation of late 19th century nationalistic work. Still useful as a starting point for the beginner.

Kirsten Hastrup is one of the most active ethnohistorians in the field. Her descriptions are precise, well researched, and detailed.

Fenton's comprehensive study of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Typical broad approach common to Scandinavian studies generally. Also represents an expanded version of the local historical society publication pattern.

Jessie Byock's consideration of social patterns found in the sagas. Interesting questions and application of source material. Represents the best of the deconstructionist and post-modernist considerations of Medieval Iceland.

Jensen's interdisciplinary look at the connections between the far North and the Mediterranean.

Results of a study on Medieval settlement patterns in Scandinavia. Typical of the Scandinavian approach to regional studies. Good basic information about Medieval Scandinavian society. Has an introduction that delineates many of the communication problems between the far North and the rest of the continent.

Copyright (C) 1996, Tamsin Hekala. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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