Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Bishops' Sea: Planting the Atlantic Cross

Note: diacritics omitted when it's easier that way.
Hólar farm in Öxnadalur, north Iceland, Photo by Rajan Parriker, posted at

"[F]or the next twelve years "many very deserving persons transplanted themselves and their families to New England," amongst whom were "gentlemen of ancient and worshipful families, and ministers of the Gospel then of great fame at home, and merchants, husbandmen, and artificers, to the number of some thousands." It was reckoned that 198 ships were employed, at a cost of 192,000l, to carry over these emigrants, who for these " twelve years kept sometimes dropping, and sometimes flocking into New England." By the year 1640, the set tlers were supposed to have amounted to 4000 persons, who are said in fifty years to have multiplied into 100,000."
Thus Samuel Wilberforce, an ambitious young canon of the Church of England, writing in his History of the Protestant Episcopallian Church in America [1844], and quoting a mysterious document found in the A medievalist would laugh. Brought up on the old church historians' claims of curious manuscripts found in the library ofo the Bishop of London's Consistorial and Eipscopal Court library at Fulham Palace, the ancient county seat of the Bishop. a medievalist would laugh, having been to this rodeo far too many times. (1,2

And, yet, there is the manuscript. It is no fake. It is William Bradford's memoir, which, apparently,  passed through the hands of a relative and amateur historian, who used them as a source, before they ended up in the  tower of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. The manuscript was possibly removed, perhaps during the British Revolutionary War occupation, and ended up in Fulham Palace because it contains church records. It was finally returned to Massachusetts a half-century later, and there is a story there, even if the telling of it seems to have made Nineteenth Century bottoms wiggle  uncomfortably in their overstuffed chairs.

The reason that I'm making so much of it is that the manuscript was supposed to be there. Boston was in the diocese of London. Odd? On the contrary: we are at this point 1300 years from the first claim to be "metropolitan" of the Atlantic seas. York, Utrecht, Armagh, "Hamburg-Bremen," Canterbury, Lund, Nidaros (Trondheim), London. All have claimed "metropolitan" jurisdiction over the far, sea-washed isles. All have created their own pasts to meet their needs. 

Rather than waste time and text on it, here is a diverting path to take through Wikipedia links, following up on Armagh's claim to be the seat of St. Patrick and the archepiscopal see of Ireland. (1>2>3>>5>6>7>8>9). It takes a great deal of the medieval mystery out of it to reduce it down tto Kildare forgers versus Armagh fantasists until Dublin usurped Kildare, but it does give you a sense of the way this history floats: three dates for the death of (two?) Patricks in a manuscript copy of a 660(?) hagiography from 808. If the dates given by one writer don't bewilder you, then the utter, albeit polite disagreement of the next authority with all of them will. 

So the point of this posting is that this curious arrangement of the far-flung north Atlantic plantations being under a bishop,or (mostly) an archbishop, is worth exploring. Not in Ireland or in the north of England. That would just get too exhausting. Let's try anchoring things instead.

Myth history is one thing. Thank God we have manuscripts. In 1075 or 1076, the schoolman Adam of Bremen presented his "Deeds of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen" to Liemar, Archbishop of that diocese, sometimes proclaimed metropolitan of the North. Magister Adam has a number of objectives in his Gestae. He needs to prove that there actually exists an "archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen," a point so controversial that apparently Wikipedia can't even discuss it, except to acknowledge that it is probably all made up. At least, thanks to the anchoring manuscript, we don't have to delve into that. If we buy the claim, we can wedge Willehad, Ansgar and Adalbert into the same line of succession, and that will probably help us fight the Investiture Controversy . Because who cares what actually happened two hundred years ago: what matters is politics now. 

The danger of that attitude is that we do not care about the Investiture Crisis (I assume), and we especially don't care about those aspects of the controversy which involved court infighting between Adalbert of Hamburg and Anno of Cologne. We care that Adam tells us that people of Hamburg-Bremen's ecclesiastical province have founded a settlement on Greenland, across the strait from Iceland, and have sailed on from there to "Vinland," If voyaging to America were not enough, he is also one of our main sources for a unitary religious practice called "Norse paganism," which involved hanging sacrifices of men, horses and dogs at Uppsala. Should I drop American Gods spoilers, or confine myself to pointing out that archaeology has failed to confirm Adam's picture of the shrine at Uppsala. 

As for the "unitary practice of Norse paganism," well. . . 

This map is from Fredrik Svanberg, Death Rituals in South-East Scandinavia AD 800—1000: Decolonizing the Viking Age Vol 2, (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 2003) and you can guess that Dr. Svanberg has opinions about how the "Viking Age" has been "constructed." According to Dr. Svanberg's assessment of the archaeology, there are at least four distinct "Norse" religious cultures in southeastern Scandinavia alone. I won't presume to summarise what Dr. Svanberg thinks can be said about them, because post-processual archaeology is hard, and time is short, but he is certainly not the first to dismiss the idea of a "Norse religion."

The next act in the ecclesiastical history of the Atlantic --you know, the stuff that we can nail down-- is the establishment of the archdiocese of Lund in 1103/1104, specifically, it seems, to cut Hamburg-Bremen down to size. 

Lund's era as the patriarchate of the Altantic was relatively brief. In 1153/54, We are told, The English churchman, Nicholas Brakespear, was around and about in Scandinavia, setting up new dioceses and archdioceses and rearranging vast ecclesiastical provinces, as people did. That's how Nidaros (Trondheim) came to be the metropolitan archdiocese of the Atlantic. Then ol'Nick went off to be Pope, no big deal.

If you're expecting an explanation of the career of Pope Adrian IV here, you're going to be disappointed. He's clearly a big deal in the international politics of the day, so presumably his excursion to Trondheim is also a big deal, but the traditional history says that since Norway is a country, of course it should have its own archbishop, and since all the people out on the islands were Norwegians, their bishops should be suffragens to Nidaros. To say that this begs questions, ranging from the existence of a unitary sate of Norway to the ethnic identities of the island Norse to the administrative structure of the universal church, is to understate things.

It is time, however, to move on to Iceland, location of the Bishop of Holar, from 1106 to 1801 one of the two main dioceses of Iceland, and now a farm in a valley with a total population of less than 2000 people. Or to Skalholt, the other diocese in Iceland, or to Gardar in Greenland

Or to "Bishop Eric Gnuppson," who sailed from Iceland in search of Vinland in 1113. . .

Wait a moment here. Archaeology might serve us here. Here is what grounded facts (careful interpretation of burial practices aside) tell us about the deep history of Scandinavia and the Northern Isles:

10,000BC: The ice retreats. People arrive in Scandinavia. They eat reindeer, and make tools from stone. It used to be assumed, and still sometimes is, that their language and religion can be inferred from the tools.
2000BC Bronze tools!
2000--500BC Spectacular monuments. Burials suggest social stratification. We can speculate as we choose about chieftainships and archaic states.
500BC All of that disappears: we can make a much stronger argument about the levelling effect of iron and a resulting break down in long range trade in prestige items than for, say, Greece.
0AD Monuments and furnished burials again. The "Roman Iron Age" seems to show evidence of social stratification. Also, the tools now speak northwest German and Finno-Ugric, depending on whether they are used for farming or hunting.
500AD Collapse again! In the wake of the recent move away from exogenous theories of social change (it's because it got cold in Scandinavia), archaeologists no longer explain the difficulty in finding sites of this period in terms of a population collapse. It seems, instead, to be a social levelling effect again. At least, if current interpretations are not just as heavily influenced by the new generation of cool people (Norman Yoffe, James C. Scott) as I am. 
550AD Geoffrey of Tours tells us that a Danish king raids the Frankish coast. Of course, he also has "Saxon" barbarians living in Bayeux in Normandy, leaving one to wonder if, in general, our perception of radical change in the Viking Age arises in part from our uncuriosity about the Merovingian.  
600AD Well, that was quick. First pollen evidence of settlement on the Faeroes, first carbon dating of settlement in Iceland. Latter is far more controversial, and, to be fair, debatable, than former. A centuries-old whale blubber industry on the far northeastern coast of Norway expands enormously, flourishes until 900AD, then disappears almost without a trace. A chieftainship appears on the Lofoten Islands, associated with the production of stockfish, presumably for trade. Modern, much more sophisticated ways of asking tools what languages their makers speak establish that both Norse and Sami spread rapidly through culturally disparate but genetically homogenous Scandinavian populations in specific economic contexts. Reindeer hunters/herders become Sami, fishers/farmers become Norse. I like this interpretation better, but that doesn't make this whole "what language does this tool speak" approach any more plausible.
800AD Speaking of, Norse in the Hebrides? Orkneys?
875AD A convenient volcanic ash layer allows us to date Icelandic settlement to precisely the time when Icelandic writers said it happened, centuries later. Site survey helps establish that the account given by those writers is inaccuurate, however. 

Now I want to look at the history, which goes back almost to the beginning of this story. Specifically, I want to look at the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturlusson (1179--1241), because you just know that if you go on long enough, you are finally going to get to a history that tells you what's been going on.

As Wikipedia puts it:
Perhaps Snorri’s most enduring importance lies in the fact that without his writings, our possibilities for perceiving the views and thoughts of pagan North Europeans would be considerably more limited than they admittedly are. His writings provide information and indications concerning persons and events influencing the peoples inhabiting this region during periods of time concerning which information is scarce. [9]
To an extent, the legacy of Snorri Sturluson also played a role in politics long after his death. His writings could be used in support of the claims of later Norwegian kings concerning the venerability and extent of their rule.

The Heimskringla is a "collection of sagas about the Norwegian kings, beginning with the mythical Ynglings, moving on to historical kings such as Harald Fairhair. . ." Harald is a prominent name in the history of the Atlantic, since it is his persecutions, and those of his sons, which cause the flight of the proud Norwegian aristocrats who settle Iceland. It will probably not surprise readers to hear that it is now the fashion to doubt that Harald Fairhair existed, and there was certainly no unitary Norwegian state in his days. The "inaccuracy" of the early accounts of the settlement of Iceland is tied in with this, because the original "landtaking" settlements are found not to be large, aristocratic holdings, as they are decribed, but rather much smaller and more isolated farms. 

What is surprising is just how close to the surface this legendary period is. Erik the Red's father fled Harald Fairhair's persecution. What does it do to the story of Greenland and of Vinland to decouple its foundation (only a century old when Adam of Bremen notices it) from the perhaps spurious precision and accuracy of the "Icelandic historical writers."

To justify the scare quotes, let's look in more detail at the metropolitan province of Nidaros (from Wikipedia): 

Bjørgvin (earlier Selje)Christ Church1068
OsloHallvards Cathedral1068
HamarHamar Cathedral1152
StavangerStavanger Cathedral1125
KirkjubøurFaroe IslandsMagnus Cathedralc. 1100
KirkjuvagrOrkney and ShetlandSt Magnus Cathedralc. 1035
SuðreyjarIsle of ManIslands of the Clyde and the HebridesPeel Cathedral1154
SkálholtSouthern IcelandSkálholt Cathedral1056
HólarNorthern IcelandHólar Cathedral1106
GarðarGreenlandGardar Cathedral1124
 If you actually spent time following my Irish walk through Wikipedia, earlier, you will note that "Sodor" on Man has two foundation dates: by Saint Maughold, cast adrift from Ireland by Saint Patric, and, here, 1154. Odd, although hardly the oddest thing you're going to find when trying to "date" the "foundation" of medieval dioceses. According to Ari the Wise, Iceland was converted to Christianity by missionaries around 1000AD, and the church tithe was established in 1095. Those, right there are suspicious dates.(1) Throughout the 1100s, the main chiefs of Iceland (typically 4--6 paramount, 33 lesser) controlled the parishes of Iceland as priest-chieftains. Nidaros considered this highly irregular, and after setting up Skalholt and Holar, moved on to gradually prise the churches, but not immediately, and only with difficulty, the associated revenues away from the chiefs.

It is in this context, Sigurdsson suggests, that "saga-writing" originated. The chieftains, still powerful, wealthy and influential, but now forcibly secularised, need an ideological basis for their claims. A full review of extant Icelandic manuscripts reveals the importance of contemporary Latin learning, chivalric romances and of the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett to actual, reading and writing Icelanders of the mid- to late-1100s. The sagas are not the voice of the deep past ringing down in oral tradition guaranteed in its authenticity by the obscurity of their kennings. While their core of oral, historic accuracy cannot be entirely rejected, they are a response to royal romances, medieval Christianity, and Scholastic learning. If Snorri's take on ancient Norse religion sometimes almost seems as though it was invented to fit Snorri's tastes, and his particular political situation --well, that's quite possibly because it was. 

Which brings me to. . . the Sami.(2) Traditionally, the quasi-nomadic, quasi-pastoral reindeer hunters of the interior of Scandinavia are an ancient people without history, who live in unpopulated areas, authentic, homogenous and static --truly people who wear funny hats, in the National Geographic sense. Are they invaders from the east, or pre--Indo-European autochthones, true Hyperboreans? The latter explanation fell into disrepute in the Nineteenth Century, because it would imply that they were the megalith builders, which is hard to reconcile with their being lazy and shiftless (but naturally good-humoured and musical!) An Alpine race, as they used to say in those days, was invoked instead, and physical anthropologists soon, conveniently, found the requisite "short" skulls, clearing the way for the Sami to be Asiatic invaders. Damn those yellow hordes! More recent tastes prefer contact and diffusion amongst the hunters of Fenno-Scandia, social stratification on the Norwegian coast, and ethnogenesis to solidify contacts, with Sami identity originating in the creation of a Middle Ground between the Germanic coasts and the Russian/Karelian interiors, allowing that we have no idea who these pre-Novgorodian "Russians" were. Barmians? Kvenns? Rus Khaganate? It is interesting that the whale blubber rendering pits all cluster north of the (early historic) Norwegian-Novgorodian-Karelian tax border in the Finnmark. (64) 

From this, the romantic's eye is drawn to the rivers of the Russian Arctic, and to Ottkar's account of his trading trip to the White Sea, but, unfortunately, were we can follow the trade, it is much less dramatically to be traced from the Baltic Sea down the Russian rivers to the Volga-Bulgars, who may have been the intermediaries selling an impressive amount of Central Asian silk into Scandinavia, along with the better known Arabic dinars dug up in such quantity on Gotland.(3)

What is interesting about the trade to the east is that while medieval geographers knew about Vinland and Greenland, they tended to assume that they were peninsulas and islands off (Eur-)Asia. Could you get to the lands of the Barmians by walking far enough north in Greenland? It seemed like a reasonable inference. If you go to Vinland for furs, are you drawing on Asian sources? Geography is complicated! 

There is no simple conclusion here, except that history is slippery. If I had time --I don't, if you were wondering why this blog posting is fading away-- I would drag it back from constructed pasts and changing identities and orient it towards the Norwegian trade in butter and stockfish, a trade which, unlike the romance of distant places, is taking place in the market square before Nidaros Cathedral. That is, it is time to draw in the strands, and look at power and politics in the court of Haakon VII, at the decision to raise Nidaros to archepiscopalian status, and to the competing interests of English and German taders seeking salt fish in the Norwegian market. The capital of Norway will move soon, from Trondheim to Bergen, and it will turn out, in the Heimskringla, that the two towns, or, rather, estates, have always been at odds since the time of Harald Fairhair. 

That doesn't matter. What matters is the trade, not in fish, because this does not yet have to be sourced across the Atlantic, but in furs. The archaeological inference is that the Bronze Age had the power to draw Arctic luxury goods from Lofotens, and the Roman Iron Age from Finnmark. It seems a little odd that the high Medieval Age lacked the ability to draw them from Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Or does it? Does the ethnogenesis of "Norse" and "Sami" tell us about the importance, the penetration of that trade? That is, throw out the Norse deep past and see it as the creation of Snorri Sturlusson and his contemporaries, a counter-text to the narrative of Nidaros. Identity is created when it is needed.

1. Speaking of suspicions, if you're deeply offended by my insistence on questioning hte historicity of Snori Sturlusson, allow me to deflect: it's all in Jon Vidar Sigurdsson, “Historical Writing and the Political Situation in Iceland, 1100—1400,” 59—78. in Anne Eriksen and Jon Vidar Sigurdsson, eds., Negotiating Pasts in the Nordic Countries(Lund: Northern Academic, 2009).
2. Lars Ivar Hansen and Bjornar Olsen, Hunters in Transition: An Outline of Early Sami History (Leiden: Brill, 2014).
3. Marianne Vedeler, Silk for the Vikings (Oxford: Oxbow, 2014) Evidence instead of more word pictures! Unfortunately, not enough evidence to build up satisfactory statistics, or I would make something of the absence of silk finds on Gotland. Maybe Gotland is a place where money goes to die, as opposed to a trade centre? See? Without evidence, you can speculate how you please. 

No comments:

Post a Comment