Deconstructing the "Nordic civilization"

  • Przemysław Urbańczyk
Keywords: Civilization, pre-Christian


Arnold Toynbee’s concept of the “Nordic civilization” added a historiosophic dimension to the already popular idea of a common “Viking Age culture” throughout Northern Europe. However, the study of local and regional diversities that may lie hidden behind the attractive products of the elitist “cosmopolitan” culture, must be seen as a necessary element of future research. There is also a need to question the easy separation between the “pagan” and “Christian” periods, by which all the problems of religious transition are avoided. Equally dubious is the tendency to view state formation in Scandinavia merely as the political unification of previously ethno-culturally uniform lands instead of as the ruthless competition of “egoistic” dynasties. And different conversion processes should be recognised in the different parts of the Nordic area involving various strategies of direct challenge, but also compromise, adaptation and acceptance. Thus, instead of generalizing about an isolated, unique and homogenous early medieval “Nordic civilization”, an important task for modern scholars of medieval studies is to explore specific problems that pertain to specific areas. Iceland might be considered to be an ideal testing-ground for this approach with its medieval declarations of original Norwegian identity that helped to overcome the multiethnicity of the original settlers; with the romantic view of the “republican” farmers, which concealed the fact that a monarchy could not have worked in Iceland; and with the ideological compromise regarding religion in Iceland, which resulted in survival of the pre-Christian tradition.