Ancient and medieval Scandinavia


Ancient and medieval Scandinavia
   During the Migration Period (ca. 400) various Germanic tribes moved north into Scandinavia and mixed with the indigenous population. Local kingdoms and earldoms arose, and gradually larger and more powerful political units emerged. By the beginning of the Viking Age it makes sense to talk about Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as separate countries, but Scandinavia was largely one cultural area throughout which the same language was spoken. Finns and Sami reindeer herders did not speak this language and had a different culture, but as Thomas A. DuBois has shown, there was considerable cultural contact between speakers of Ancient Scandinavian on the one hand, and Finns and Samis on the other.1
   The literature of this early period was mostly orally transmitted and consisted of both alliterative poetry and prose narratives. Although fragments of such poetry have been preserved in runic inscriptions (the term "runes" refers to an alphabet with letters that were designed to be easily cut into stone or wood), most of this body of poetry is preserved in manuscripts that originated in 13th-century Iceland, and Icelandic sagas from the same period seem to reflect the existence of an ancient oral prose tradition. It was the coming of Christianity that caused this flowering of an indigenous literature to come about, for missionary monks and priests brought with them both the writing technology and the alphabet that enabled large-scale creation of texts. The result of the Christianization of Scandinavia was thus not only that the older pagan belief system more or less disappeared, but that knowledge of ancient times could be preserved through the work of such literary figures as Snorri Sturluson, the great medieval Icelandic historian.
   Scandinavia was, of course, located on the margins of the medieval civilized world, and its isolation became even more pronounced after the ravages of the Black Death. First noticed in Bergen, Norway, in 1349, this plague spread across Scandinavia and destroyed roughly half of the population. The consequences for cultural, economic, and political life were enormous, and it is no exaggeration to say that, intellectually speaking, darkness reigned in Scandinavia for an extended period of time. What literary and intellectual culture remained was associated mostly with the church, which used Latin as its medium of communication and did not encourage literacy among the common people.

Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature and Theater. . 2006.

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