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How Christian Were the Norwegians in the High Middle Ages? The Runic Evidence

TERJE SPURKLAND

In the second decade of the twentieth century, there were two doctoral disputations at the University of Oslo with an aftermath that came to dominate the academic debate about the mentality of medieval Norway for a long time. The common topic of  these dissertations was the religious life of Norway in the Middle Ages.2 The main question was: Were the Norwegians, generally speaking, really Christian in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries? Two answers were given: one affirmative and one negative. Edvard Bull argued that Christian religion and morality did not penetrate the soul and mind of the Norwegians; they were just like the Russian nobility at the time of Peter the Great, in that as soon as you scratched them on the arm, the Tartar appeared. Frederik Paasche took the opposite view; the Norse Christianity reflected an actual change of religion, “a real longing for Christ and His succession. In the 1980s, there was a historiographical discussion between the scholars John van Engen and Jean-Claude Schmitt about how to understand the predominant mentalities of the Christian Middle Ages. The general drift of this discussion was how to understand and how to uncover or reveal the mentality of the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Schmitt contested vigorously what was commonly called “the legend of the Christian Middle Ages”, suggesting that what we are dealing with is a minuscule clerical elite while the mass of medieval people lived in a folklore culture best likened to that observed by anthropologists in Third World countries. Van Engen rejected a conception of the Middle Ages as two distinct cultures: one clerical and bookish, the other popular, oral and customary. He admitted that it was undeniable that the great majority of the common people were cut off from direct access to the written norms of a Christian culture. The real question was the degree to which people’s rituals, art, literature and cosmology had nonetheless been shaped or influenced by these Christian norms – that is to say, the degree to which Christian culture had over time become the people’s oral culture.

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