Nordic uniqueness in the middle ages? Political and literary aspects

  • Sverre Bagge
Keywords: European Society


The article addresses the question of Nordic uniqueness in the Middle Ages in the political and social fields, as well as in the literary field. With regard to the political dimension, there is not much evidence to support the notion that countries like Iceland and Norway were any more democratic than the rest of Europe in that they had more developed constitutional arrangements. They may, however, be regarded as more democratic in the sense that the social and economic differences between the elite and the common people were not as pronounced as they seem to have been in most other European countries. The main evidence for Nordic – i.e. Icelandic and to some extent Norwegian – uniqueness comes from the literary field. The sagas differ significantly from Latin historiography in not only being written in the vernacular but also because of their distinctive style, the aim of which was to convey a concrete representation of external reality and a political explanation for this reality. By contrast, Latin historiography tended to regard external events as the expression of a spiritual reality and to comment on the significance of these events from an ethical or typological point of view. Finally, the relationship between the literary features of the Icelandic sagas and Icelandic/ Norwegian society is discussed. Does the sagas’ literary style reflect a more egalitarian Icelandic/Norwegian/Nordic society than any contemporary European society, as well as a society less dominated by ecclesiastical culture and ideals?