Thursday, March 20, 2008

How Norway Was Founded

I've asserted before that all states -- without exception -- are founded on either conquest or rebellion. What is very peculiar is that traditional political theory is both more aware of this fact than democrat-republican theory, and also more insistent on the ethical obligation to obey the successful conquerors/rebels.

But is it really true that sovereign kingdoms are found on rebellion or conquest? What about, for example, Sweden or Denmark or Norway? They never conquered anyone, and they've never had a revolution. Surely they must be governments that are legitimate and violence-free, not just in their operations, but also in their founding. Well, leaving aside Vikings, and the break up of the Union of Kallmar and so on, Snorri Sturluson in his Egil's Saga gives us a very interesting picture of how the Kingdom of Norway was first established:

By this time Halfdan the Black's son, Harald, had come into his inheritance to the east in Oslofjord, and had sworn a solemn oath never to cut or comb his hair until he'd made himself sole ruler of Norway. That was why people called him Harald the Shaggy [Harald Finehair in other translations].

First of all he fought and put down the kings nearest to him, and there are long stories about that campaign. After that he conquered the Uplands and traveled north from there to Trondheim, though he had to fight many a battle before he was able to get control of all Trondheim Province. . . . . (p. 23)

There follows a description of his conquests of the kings in Namdalen, More, Romsdalen and elsewhere, partly by overawing them, and partly by military force. Solvi Splitter, son of the defeated king Hunthjof rallies a neighboring King Arnvid this way:

'We may be in trouble now,' said Solvi, 'but it won't be long before the same happens to you. Take my word for it, Harald will be turning up here at any moment, just as soon as he's got all the people of North More and Romsdale where he wants them and made slaves of them. You're going to have the same choice on your hands as we had. Either you'll have to defend your freedom and your goods with every man you can muster -- and I'll help you fight this tyranny and injustice with all the forces I have -- or else you can choose to place yourselves under Harald's yoke and become slaves, like the men of Namdalen. My father preferred to die with honor like the King he was, not to spend his old age as another King's hired man, and I think you'll be minded to do the same as anyone who still has some pride and ambition' (pp. 23-24).

King Harald's exactions didn't stop once he'd unified the realm:

Once he'd gained full control of the provinces that had just come into his hands, Harald kept a sharp eye on the landed men and rich farmers, and anyone else he might expect trouble from. He gave them a choice of three things. They could swear loyalty or they could leave the country, but if they chose the third, they could resign themselves to the most savage terms, perhaps even death. There were cases where Harald had people's arms and legs hacked off. In every province, Harald took over both farming land and estates, whether they were inhabited or not, even the sea and the lakes. Every farmer and every forester had to become his tenant, every salt-maker and every hunter on land or sea had to pay taxes to him. Many a man went on the run from this tyranny and many a wilderness became inhabited, both east in Jamtaland and Halsingland [in modern-day Sweden] and west, in the Hebrides, as well as in parts around Dublin in Ireland, Normandy in France, Caithness in Scotland, Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes. And that's when Iceland was discovered (p. 26).

What always struck me as so unrealistic about Daniel Larison-style paleo-conservatism is its pretension that somehow the idea of conquest and bigger units and centralization and state power was invented by crazy New Englanders sometime around 1820. Or maybe by evil Henry VIII. (Depending on whether the paleo-con in question is Southern or Catholic.) Before then, you get the impression from that that local rule was a universally respected principle and all traditional peoples abhorred the idea of just waking up one day and deciding "I'm the king of a single fjord in Norway, but I'd like to be king of the whole thing. I think I'll conquer all the rest and make this a reality." Well, obviously this is pretty much how Snorri Sturluson, an Icelander and descendant of those who fled Harald's rule, pictured it: long before nominalism, or the Reformation (Harald the Shaggy was a pagan), or the Yankees with their -isms.

More interesting is the comparison of this with the Deuteronomistic History. Snorri Sturluson also wrote the Heimskringla, which is a history of the Yngling kings of Norway (including Harald Shaggy/Finehair and his ancestors and descendants). We often talk about Biblical genre; of course genre is simply a concise way of specifying the other books against which one intends to read and compare the one you are reading with. Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla is not a bad work to read the Deuteronomistic History against, with one big caveat: Jeremiah's history ends with a exile, while the ending of Snorri Sturluson's history is less clear-cut. But both have this (to modern ears) strange juxtaposition of a very unenchanted view of the origin of monarchy with an acceptance of the prerogatives of the monarch and his position.

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