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The main tendencies in the development of Scandinavian political organisation in the high Middle Ages were centralisation and growth of public authority under the monarchy, the Church, and the secular aristocracy. This chapter outlines the development of three Nordic kingdoms that grew into more state-like entities, until 1319 when the first of the Nordic unions was established between Norway and Sweden. Danish struggles over the succession to the throne from the 1130s to the 1150s were followed by the strong and expansionist Valdemarian monarchy which once more made Denmark the leading kingdom in Scandinavia. In Norway, the Norwegian church was centralised under the archbishop of Trondheim in 1152-3, and in the following decades the first steps were taken towards a nationally organised system of government. Scandinavian kingship entered a new phase in the high Middle Ages, reflected by the introduction of royal unction and coronation. There may have been early royal initiatives in provincial thing legislation in the Scandinavian kingdoms.
At the end of the Viking Age the establishment of three separate Nordic kingdoms hardly seemed a self-evident course of future events. The prospect of direct Danish rule over most of southern Scandinavia, combined with an indirect overlordship of other parts of the region, must have appeared at least as likely. Yet, in the course of the early Middle Ages the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden came to comprise most of their later territories on the Scandinavian peninsula and developed far enough for their survival to be secured. During the same period Christianity was firmly established in all Scandinavian-speaking communities and its Church reached the organisational stage where bishops ruled territorial bishoprics from permanent sees with cathedrals, monastic institutions were firmly established, and payment of tithe was being introduced. From the beginning of the twelfth century the Nordic churches were also organised as a separate church province under the supremacy of the archbishop of Lund (Part II).
All this does not mean that the political and ecclesiastical situation was stable at the onset of the high Middle Ages in the mid-twelfth century. The three kingdoms lacked centralised systems of government and their unity was seriously threatened by dynastic rivalry and succession disputes. In Iceland the original distribution of power among numerous chieftains within an all-embracing community of laws was in the process of being disrupted by the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of prominent families whose leaders ruled territorial lordships. As a separate legal entity on a smaller scale, the archipelago of Føroyar seems to have been dominated by chieftains and large landowners.
Internal consolidation in the high medieval Scandinavian kingdoms meant that more energy and resources could be directed to foreign affairs, which led to expansion in directions that were determined by the geographical positions of the three kingdoms and other factors. Norway expanded towards the islands of the western sea, Sweden towards Finland and the eastern Baltic. The Danish kingdom found the chief outlets for its foreign energies in north Germany and along the Slavonic south coast of the Baltic. After 1300 inter-Nordic relations were, to a much higher degree than before, determined by internal political conditions in Sweden. In 1319, the first of the medieval Scandinavian unions was established. It was clearly an outcome of the inter-Nordic entanglement which had started in the mid-thirteenth century, not least on the initiative of the consolidated Norwegian monarchy under Håkon Håkonsson. The process had now gone too far to be stopped by the new-found cautiousness of Håkon V in his last years.
The death of King Sigurd Crusader in 1130 marked the transition from a century of relatively peaceful internal conditions in Norway to a century of frequent struggles over the succession to the throne which are referred to as the Civil Wars. Due to and during these struggles, the development of a more centralised and better organised Norwegian kingdom gained momentum. This resulted in a period of internal consolidation between the last outbreak of hostilities in 1239-40 and the death of King Håkon V Magnusson in 1319. For the consolidated monarchy the right of inheritance played a central role. The period of early 1260s to about 1400 has been termed the Norwegian age in Icelandic historical research. King Magnus Law-mender laid down the principle that there should be one king over the whole Norwegian dominion, both inland and over the tributary lands. This meant that Iceland was considered part of the Norwegian realm both constitutionally and administratively.
The word ‘Scandinavia’ first occurs in the Naturalis historia of Pliny the Elder (d. AD 79), in the form of Scadinavia or Scatinavia. In later manuscripts of this work an n was added in the first syllable and the name became Scandinavia, as it still is. Pliny used the name to denote what he believed to be a large island in the Baltic. As the basis for his original Latin version of the name, a Germanic form *Skapin-aujō or *Skaðin-aujō has been reconstructed. The last part of this compound, meaning ‘land on the water’ or ‘island’, causes no difficulty, but the interpretation of the first element is disputed. Half a score of conjectures have been suggested. One of the more plausible ones, accepted by some of the leading scholars in the field, is that the first part is derived from the Germanic stem of *skaðan – ‘danger, damage’. Scandinavia would then originally mean ‘the dangerous land on the water’ or ‘the dangerous island’.
Pliny also refers to a group of islands in the north called Scandiae. In the following century they reappear in the geographical writings of Ptolemy. He places the four islands of Skandiai east of Jylland (Jutland) and singles out the largest and most easterly as the proper Skandia. This is clearly Skåne (Scania), the southernmost region of present-day Sweden, and the territory north of it; the other three and smaller Skandiai would be Danish islands. It appears, then, that Pliny’s Scadinavia was also one of the islands which he called Scandiae.
This volume presents a comprehensive exposition of both the prehistory and medieval history of the whole of Scandinavia. The first part of the volume surveys the prehistoric and historic Scandinavian landscape and its natural resources, and tells how man took possession of this landscape, adapting culturally to changing natural conditions and developing various types of community throughout the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. The rest - and most substantial part of the volume - deals with the history of Scandinavia from the Viking Age to the end of the Scandinavian Middle Ages (c. 1520). The external Viking expansion opened Scandinavia to European influence to a hitherto unknown degree. A Christian church organisation was established, the first towns came into being, and the unification of the three medieval kingdoms of Scandinavia began, coinciding with the formation of the unique Icelandic 'Free State'.
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