Monday 24 April 2017

Voyages Along the North Way, Past and Present

Hardangerfjorden Hordaland

Ben Allport, PhD Candidate

A well-known textual source for Viking Age Norway, known as Ohthere’s Voyage, relates the account of a Norwegian trader at the court of King Alfred the Great in the 870s-90s. Ohthere had journeyed from his home in the far north of Norway both northeast to the White Sea and south along the coast to the town of Hedeby (Schleswig) in modern Germany. From his home to a town called Skiringssal at the entrance to the Oslofjord he describes the route he is sailing as the ‘Northway’, one of our earliest attestations of the term that would become ‘Norway’ in modern English and ‘Norge’ in modern Norwegian. It is a unique text which attests to the sailing prowess of Viking Age Scandinavians and also to the friendlier contacts between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse at a time which we tend to view through the lens of the Viking invasions.
Folgefonna National Park

Last year, from September to November, I got the opportunity to make my own voyage to ‘Northway’. Generously supported financially by the Scandinavian Studies Fund and the Sydney and Marguérite Cody Studentship, I spent three months based as a visiting researcher at the University of Oslo (Universitetet i Oslo) – but I made sure I had an allowance to do some travelling! When I wasn’t trawling through Norwegian history books, and attending (and occasionally giving) seminars or lectures in the ever-friendly Faculty of Archaeology, History and Conservation in Oslo, I was able to visit the varyingly autumnal and snowy forests of the Oslomark, experience the beautiful train-ride to Bergen, visit some of the Viking historical sites of Western Norway, and even fly to Tromsø, deep within the Arctic circle, to speak at the most northern University in the world, taking in some northern lights in the process.

My PhD research is concerned with the importance Norwegian regional identity in the Viking Age. Norwegian regional identity remains strong even to this day, with different areas even adopting different official dialects that distinguish them from the official language Bokmål, understood abroad as ‘Norwegian’. My trip therefore allowed me to get to grips with both the modern and medieval regional identities of Norway; I learned of the stereotypes that are still very much alive. The residents of Bergen (bergenser) are renowned for being loud and obnoxious (source: an Oslo resident), while those of Trøndelag (the area surrounding Trondheim), are moustachioed, bucolic, and wear leather jackets (I’m not joking about the moustaches, the so-called the trønderbart – google it).

St Olafs Church, Avaldsnes

My trip took me to locations such as Avaldsnes in Rogaland, the place from which Harald Fairhair, the semi-legendary unifier of the Norwegian kingdom, reigned supreme over all of Norway from the 870s to 930s – if you ask a resident of Rogaland, that is (or watch the fantastically mythologised video at the Avaldsnes Nordvegen museum). Someone from Oslofjord might suggest that Harald only ruled Western Norway and Trøndelag; a trønder might dispute even that. Although this late ninth-century figure may be controversial, it is clear that the modern Norwegian concept of history goes back much further than one might expect, particularly given the English (a term used advisedly) tendency, sprung of Victorian attitudes, to view 1066 as the starting point in British history, ignoring the different peoples and cultures of prior centuries. One person in Oslo even proudly told me that she had gone to school at Avaldsnes and had used to jog on Harald’s burial mound. Not one of the many mounds at Avaldsnes has been identified as Harald’s – and indeed the only written evidence that it exists at all locate it five miles away, in Haugesund. Who knows which particular tumulus had taken on this special significance for her, but to a certain extent it doesn’t matter; it is enough that, to this individual, history, identity and the landscape were all bound up together.

At one point I was able to make it as far as Ohthere’s homeland: the county of Troms, well within the Arctic circle, a land of sheer, dark cliffs that tower over the small settlements dotting the coastline. I was there in late November, and witnessed the beginning of the period known as ‘mørketiden’ – literally ‘the dark time’ – when the sun goes down for the winter. I walked across a frozen lake in Tromsø in the midday twilight, while people walked their dogs and skated around me. At night the skies were lit with the ‘nordlys’ – the northern lights.

As I described these sites to my dad over the phone, his first question was: ‘why do people decide to live there?’ Admittedly, his ideal of weather is decidedly more Mediterranean than mine; my choice of destinations (having previously spent years in both Iceland and Norway) tend towards cooler temperatures. However, at first glance, it is hard to imagine what would have induced Ohthere’s ancestors to settle in such an apparently hostile environment. A couple of centuries ago I’m sure it would have been argued that some sort of primordial romantic spirit drove the initial intrepid settlers to a place where nature so forcefully exerts its power over man; something similar probably drives modern tourism. 

However, the fact remains that this migration was made, and was indeed made time and again, by both the Sámi (the earliest settlers of the region) and the Norse, all of whom sought after the plentiful resources which lurk in abundance beneath the barren landscape we like to picture. During the Viking Age, northern Norway (or Hálogaland, as it was known to Ohthere) may well have been the economic powerhouse of Norway; the shorelines of the region are dotted with the remnants of major fisheries up to 1500 years old. In the Viking Age, the residents of Hálogaland (the Háleygir) were renowned for building the largest sea-going vessels, and this is confirmed by the largest boathouses, which suggest the existence of ships of up to 40m long. As Ohthere informed Alfred, ‘he was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that is in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer.’ Besides this, the far north offered precious metals and items prized as luxuries throughout medieval Europe – furs and walrus ivory.

Oseberg ship; the largest North Norwegian ships would have been twice as big.

Ohthere’s Voyage also makes mention of the Sámi people (whom he terms the Finnas); the oldest indigenous population of Scandinavia. A diverse collection of peoples speaking ten different languages and pursuing many different livelihoods, the prevailing image of the Sámi is of nomadic reindeer herders; this seems to be the lifestyle that Ohthere describes. Unfortunately, interactions between the Norse residents of Norway and the Sámi over past centuries have ranged from exploitative (Ohthere himself extracted tribute from the Sámi, although the relationship is now considered to have been less one-sided) to outright oppressive. Today, discussion and inclusion of Sámi culture and history is beginning to gain the prominence it deserves, thanks in part to the efforts of scholars at Tromsø’s Arctic University. It was one such collection of scholars, the members of the Creating the New North research project, which had drawn me north in the first place, for an incredible few days where I was invited to speak at a project seminar, given a tour of the university museum and inundated with free books and articles. Throughout Tromsø there was evidence of the increasing recognition of the Sámi, including bilingual street signs – a sight familiar from parts of our own isles.

Ohthere brought tales of an alien land to entice and thrill his Anglo-Saxon audience. Today, the British knowledge of Norway is far more comprehensive, especially given its popularity as a holiday destination in these days of adventure tourism. But boat-tours of the fjords and glacier walks rarely provide an opportunity to get to grips with both Norwegian history and the modern attitudes of a culture so similar, in many ways, to our own. There is therefore still room for voyages of discovery to be made to Norway; and if anyone is in need of a new Ohthere, then it is a role I am more than happy to inhabit (please)!
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I wish to extend my thanks to the funding bodies that allowed the trip to take place; to Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Hans Jacob Orning and the Institutt for Arkeologisk, Konservering og Historie at Universitetet i Oslo; to Lars Ivar Hansen, Richard Holt, Sigrun Høgetveit Berg and the ‘Creating the New North’ research project at Universitetet i Tromsø; and to everyone I met along the way!


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