One of the puzzling things in the medieval history of Scandinavia is the difference historians have found between the cultural outlook at the courts of Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Why did the Norwegian court so manifestly catch on to the ideals of courtly culture, while the courts of Denmark and Sweden apparently lacked behind. This is the question raised by a Norwegian historian in a recent article.
According to Marlen Ferrer medieval courtliness has too often been reduced to a kind of literary fiction as witnessed by the popular courtly romances and their stories about courtly love. Instead “courtoisie” should be thought of as encompassing eloquence, generosity, nobility, good manners and as opposed to being vulgar, mean, ugly and base. As such it should be recognised as a specific culture inculcated at court in order to further peaceful coexistence at a time when violence might quickly erupt.
Two explanations for the cultural adaptation of this new behavior or new culture has traditionally been given. One – by Jaeger – claims that the ideas were introduced by clerics, who increasingly were tied to the gradually more centralized courts of kings. Another explanation – by Duby – is that the widespread ideas of courtliness were the result of the gradual fusing of the culture of the crusader knights with those of the lesser gentry.
The idea brought forward by Marlen Ferrer is, that both explanations seems to be applicable in Scandinavia from the 11th to the 14th century; which helps to explain the apparent differences between the three countries, which historically were enmeshed in each other
In Norway courtliness seems to have caught on at an early time. Already in 1226 the Norwegian king, Håkon Håkonsson, commissioned a translation of “Tristams Saga” by a cleric, brother Robert. This was followed by a number of other translations of the Arthurian tales as well as the work of Marie de France. It has been suggested that the Norwegian king initiated these translations to make his court adapt the prestigious chivalric ideals and ideology, which played such an important part in the other European courts. Further the court produced a unique source, the Konungs Skuggsjá – the Royal Shield, which is a dialogue between the king and his son, advocating the new, more “mild” behavior. As opposed to this none of th pan-European literature was translated into Danish or Swedish until much later.
Marlen Ferrer suggests that the prevalent courtly literature in Norway in the 13th century was the result of a conscious royal policy, destined to increase the king’s authority though it’s application of a religiously motivated ethos. As opposed to this, the tradition in Denmark was much more diverse, while that of Sweden was hardly existing until courtliness was introduced by Queen Euphemia in 1302 – 12 through the translations into Swedish of the so-called “Euphemia visorna”.
Several reasons why Denmark caught on so late may be syggested. For instance it seems plausible that one reason was the prevalent use of the German language at the Danish court. The songs and the Romances has simply been enjoyed in this language. However, there exists a tradition of ballads in Danish, which might be dated to the 14th century and which is part of the international literary tradition. These ballads and verses cannot be univocally tied to the court of the Danish king. Instead they seem to be celebrating the courtly life at the manors of the nobility. This ties, according to Marlen Ferrar, in with the fact that the Danish Kingdom was actually gradually falling apart between 1223 and 1325. Not until 1350 does it make sense to talk about a strong Danish state. Courtly culture and traditions did set their mark upon life in medieval Denmark. This however was not linked to the Royal court as in Norway, where the local nobility was economically much more dependent upon the existence of a strong state and royal office.
The article is interesting as a kind of well-argued piece of micro-history. However, one question is not put forward: Might the different outplays simply have to do with the different inclinations and orientations of the major personalities performing their roles as kings (or queens)?
Håkon Håkonsson was born in a war-torn society plagued by armed gangs and warlords, and died the undisputed ruler of a large and internationally respected kingdom. At his court, chivalric romances and Biblical stories were translated into the old Norse language, while Håkon presided over several large-scale construction projects in stone, which was a novelty in Norway at that time. (The great hall, which he had built at his palace in Bergen (Håkonshallen) can still be seen today.)
As opposed to this Denmark after 1241 suffered from a series of civil wars and internecine strifes, escalating into a de facto devolvement of the kingdom after 1326, when the country was governed by a series of German counts, to which the country was literally pawned.
Ferrar, Marlen: State Formation and Courtly Culture in the Scandinavian Kingdoms in the High Middle Ages. In: Scandinavian Journal of History 2012, 37:1, 1 – 22
Ferrer, Marlen (2008): Emotions in motion. Emotional diversity in 13th century Spanish and Norse society. Doktoravhandling, Universitetet i Oslo.
Jaeger, Stephen: The Origins of Courtliness – Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals 939 – 1210. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press 1985
Duby, Georges: The Three Orders: feudal Society Imagined. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1980. (French: 1978)
Sverre Bagge: From Viking Stronghold to Christian Kingdom. State Formation in Norway, c. 900-1350. Copenhagen, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2010