Scandinavian History

In 1839, the Norwegian historian P. A. Munch started his history textbook with the apt title Norges, Sveriges, og Denmarks historie with the following words:

“By the Nordic countries we usually understand Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The inhabitants of these three countries are intimately related and their languages are almost identical. The interdependence between the countries has always been tight, to such an extent that one cannot simply recount of an event in one of the countries without discussing what had simultaneously occurred in the other two. It is therefore best to describe and study the history of the three Nordic states together.”

Many of Munch’s colleagues agreed with this observation. Over the course of the nineteenth century a wave of school textbooks were published that transcended the narrow national perspective and treated the history of all three Scandinavian nations together. Scandinavist convictions often played a part in these endeavours.

I have studied a selection of these school books (see list below) in order to determine what story is told of Scandinavian history. Despite some minor variations, and the one more explicitly than the other, all books basically reflect the below periodization:

 


 

1. Norse Antiquity (ca. 800)

The most ancient history is generally perceived as a shared mainspring for the modern-day Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes. The common ancestors spoke one language and were united by their worship of Odin, Thor, Freya, and the other Norse gods.

2. Viking Age (ca. 800 – 1050)

Also the Viking Age is to a great degree considered an era of Scandinavian unity. The famed Viking journeys all across the known world are for example hailed as shared achievements. However, during this period Denmark, Norway, and Sweden start to develop into three separate states.

3. High Middle Ages (1050 – 1319)

The state development continues in the High Middle Ages, which also sees the definitive christianization of the North. On the one hand perceived as a liberation from the ‘barbarity’ of paganism, most authors on the other hand also give expression to anti-Catholic views, portraying Catholicism as a corrupted ‘southern import’.

4. Union Period (1319 – 1523)

For the larger part of the late Middle Ages, the three kingdoms are united under the banner of the Kalmar Union. The appreciation for this truly Scandinavian union is highly ambivalent. On the positive side, the union is seen as the political realisation of the natural bond between the Scandinavian peoples. However, on the negative side, the Kalmar Union is judged a failed project as the hegemonic position of Denmark went at the expense of the other two countries.

5. Age of Discord (1523 – 1814)

The Kalmar Union lasted until 1523, when Sweden declared independence after years of war. War and conflict between the two Scandinavian blocks – Sweden and Denmark-Norway – was what came to characterize the relations during the following three centuries. The Swedish poet Esaias Tegnér therefore baptized this era ‘the age of discord’.

6. After 1814

Tegnér coined this term in 1829, when he symbolically crowned his Danish colleague Adam Oehlenschläger ‘King of Nordic Poems’, stating that with this gesture “the age of discord was finally over”. The authors of the school textbooks pointed out that in 1814 a new era had started which could be described as a return to the harmony that had once existed between the Scandinavians in the most ancient times. The master narrative of Scandinavian history that is thus told is of a cyclical nature: going from a mythical proto-democratic saga age through a time of misguided antagonism to a new golden age of fraternization in the present.

 


 

About this periodization

This general division of Scandinavian history has been used for the classification of the literary works and visual artworks that are inventoried on this website. That is to say: the first 5 periods described above are used to this end. The post-1814 years have been left out in order to make an equal comparison across the study period (i.e. 1770 – 1919) possible. Categorizing the corpus in this way reveals which periods were most popular as subjects for authors and artists; as such, it constitutes a first step in analyzing how the historical visions articulated in the textbooks are reflected in textual and visual culture.

 

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