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1066-1319 - Middle Ages

The historiography of the "starting-point" of Norwegian history in the proper sense, "the unification of the kingdom" (Norwegian: "rikssamling", cf. German:"Reichssammlung") is laden with national teleology. The realm was there all the time, initially consisting of smaller units, which, from the late 9th century onwards, were united into a "whole" kingdom by a series of strong kings. In explaining this process, historians, in addition to tracing the actual conquest, tried to pin-point various factors uniting the population within the country and contributing to increasing contacts between its regions during this particular period: common language and religion, easy communications, the growth of trade, and so forth.

The Norwegians may be said to be a seafaring nation, and besides having an extensive shipping business of their own, and before the Great War many of their young men served in the British and American navies. Norway was not difficult to unite under early medieval conditions; it was more easily united than almost every other country in Europe, including Denmark, because most people lived scattered along the coast, in a way that made communications and military control easy, while at the same time no particular area was sufficiently strong and densely populated to resist the central power.

The country was held together and was able to escape foreign domination for several centuries (until the 15th and 16th centuries). The 13th century is commonly regarded as Norway's period of greatness in the Middle Ages. In this period, after a series of internal struggles, and partly as a consequence of them, the Norwegian state had public justice, taxation, a common military organization, and a network of royal officials with fixed districts throughout the country.

The fairly extensive literature of kings' sagas produced during the 12th and 13th centuries gives clear evidence, not only of national sentiments but also of the close link between such sentiments and the Norwegian state.This literature, most of which was produced during a short period from around 1180 until 1230, was the expression of a kind of national mobilization during this crucial period in the development of a Norwegian state. The 12th- and 13th-century sagas contain national-patriotic sentiments, celebrating the virtues of the Norwegians and despising their neighbours, particularly the Danes. Factions were formed on the basis of friendship or kinship, and a king could only rule by exploiting such ties.

The Norwegian king depended more on popular support than most other contemporary kings, notably because of the importance of the popular levy, the leidangr, which until well into the 14th century formed the main military force of the country. Consequently, the king was normally moderate in his demand for taxes, tried to protect the peasants against greedy officials, and largely expanded his power through "service functions" to the people, above all justice and legislation.

In 1319 the last male heir to the Norwegian dynasty, King Håkon V, died, and Norway entered a personal union with Sweden, the first in a series of unions with neighboring countries. The unions were partly the result of dynastic conditions,partly of the emergence of a more international elite in closer contact with the neighboring countries - to which the unions also contributed.

The old Icelandic annals tell that the Black Death came to Bergen, Norway, in 1349 with a ship from England. This was probably at the beginning of September. From Bergen the plague spread rapidly northwards and southwards along the coast and over land to Eastern Norway. The Black Death remained in Norway for approximately six months. The epidemic must have been started by infected black rats and rat fleas in the grain cargo of the ship. The account in the annals, and experiences from other countries, indicate that pneumonic plague was dominant in Bergen at the start of the epidemic. After that the Black Death must have spread partly as pneumonic plague but mainly probably as bubonic plague, transmitted via human fleas from person to person. The rats cannot have played a part except in the initial phase. The annals say that 2/3 of Norway's population died. This is probably a big exaggeration. The mortality in Norway can hardly have been more than 40-50%. Even this is high compared with an estimated mortality of approximately 33% in England and on the continent.

Eventually, the demographic and economic weakness of Norway resulting from the Black Death (1349-1350) made it impossible for the country to maintain its own king, and led to increasing dominance by the stronger partner in the union, which from 1380 was Denmark. This eventually led to the complete loss of Norwegian independence in 1537.

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Page last modified: 21-11-2018 12:19:11 ZULU