Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site

Translation in Medieval and Reformation Norway: A History of Stories or the Story of History

  • Elizabeth Rasmussen

…plus d’informations

Corps de l’article


The Old Norse culture changed radically as a result of the encounter with the ideas and conventions conveyed by the Christian texts in the Middle Ages. Their selection was not random, but served a rather ambitious didactical scheme undertaken primarily by members of the Church, who saw a need for exemplification and instruction in appropriate Christian behavior. Translation in medieval Norway was not only a matter of knowledge transfer; it signified cultural colonialization and assimilation, it was an indispensable tool in the effort to reshape the native mentality.

In medieval Christian Norway, the vernacular remained the language of communication and civil administration. The old and new laws were recorded in the Old Norse language as a matter of course. The ancestral laws were not suppressed by the new Christian principles, the latter were incorporated into the existing codex. To all probability, the Norse tongue was taught alongside Latin in the Christian schools that were established. Translators into Old Norse never apologized for using the vernacular as did so profusely their European colleagues. Rather, prefaces to Old Norse translations introduced and explained what was about to be read, and were often accompanied by an enumeration of the benefits that the text would bestow upon the reader. The vernacular remained the lingua franca in most social and administrative contexts. All of this was rather unique from a European contemporaneous perspective.

A comprehensive history and analysis of the imported texts and their combined influence on the Old Norse mentality and social organization has yet to be written. The old texts have been studied separately by a number of scholars from various disciplines such as theology, philology and linguistics. Translation as an agent of change has been neglected by both historians and linguists. In my recent thesis (Concordia University, September 2002), I have however made an attempt at establishing a “repertoire” of translations undertaken in Norway from which detailed analyses can be made possible, showing both the scope and extent of the enterprise. Far from being a simple matter of importing foreign stories, translation in medieval Norway was an enterprise rooted in a sincere wish to introduce, promote and indoctrinate the basic notions of Christianism: yet we see an all too clear will to manipulate and control, reflecting the ongoing struggle between the Church and a succession of kings. History is not a simple succession of events. It is a maze of interlocking and multilayered factual and discursive events, of actions and reactions. The history of translation conveys a distinct perception of the past. The translators and their texts shaped history. Discursive and factual events had a reciprocal effect on each other that we cannot continue to ignore.

The Coming of Christianity: Reshaping the Mentality

Three major events marked Norwegian literary production throughout the Middle Ages: the introduction of Christianity, the Black Death, and the Reformation. They all meant a radical change of direction, they all implied major social and mental reorganization.

Long before the introduction of Christianity, the people of the North had been in regular contact with foreign cultures. The Norse people had been great travelers and merchants from before the Viking Age. Notwithstanding their somewhat dubious reputation as warriors and robbers, the Norsemen had developed commercial ties with a number of nations and regions, and had interacted with Christian communities for centuries before Christianity was introduced.

In the Old Norse society, religion was associated with the inherited wisdom and experience of the forefathers. The clan and its families were at the center of social as well as religious organization. The gods were the clan’s closest companions and friends, physically present at the farm, in tools and weapons, in a spring, a tree, a mound, or in an entire mountain. Religion focused on life as it unfolded on earth. The purpose of religious devotion was to maintain human life. People therefore needed the immediate support of the gods. And the gods were place-bound. Foreign religions were not a concern for the Norsemen, who accepted the fact that different places needed the protection of different gods. Christianity was not unknown to the people of the North, rather it was out of place, belonging elsewhere. The Norse religion was in many ways a tolerant one. Based on tradition, not on a written codex, it was practiced collectively. The seasonal rites created bonds between people, within the clan and across clan-lines. Conversion to Christianity by just one family member was considered an act of disloyalty, not only to the gods but to the ancestors and the entire clan. To break the bonds of community and convert without the consent of the clan was considered an outrage and a shame (frendeskam). This explains why so many were unwilling to accept Christianity in the early days, and why some families and clans converted as a group. In Iceland, for instance, Christianity was adopted by a regular vote at the Althing like any other communal decision.

This collective form of devotion stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly individualized Christian religion. Common sense and experience stood against philosophy and reflection. There was a world of difference between the Old Norse emphasis on honor, personal courage, skillfulness, performance and pride and the Christian ideals of submission, humbleness, and penitence in preparation for life after death. A number of adjustments were warranted.

The material translated in medieval Norway helped the Church achieve a much needed religious and social conformity with the rest of Christianity. Translation, as practiced in Norway, meant knowledge transfer on an unprecedented scale, including adaptation, paraphrase, imitation, re-writing, summary, and compilation. The imported texts opened up for an encounter between self and other in a unique way, and allowed for the appropriation and adaptation of a foreign culture and its literary expression. As manuscripts and ideas flowed in, the focus of Norwegian leaders turned outwards, away from the local towards the foreign.

Iceland and Norway: Separate Entities?

There was a constant movement of scholars and manuscripts between Iceland and Norway. Texts were translated, written, compiled, and disseminated in the two communities almost simultaneously. The ecclesiastic administrations of the two communities were officially coordinated in the 12th century, when the Archdiocese in Nidaros gained ecclesiastical control over the Arctic regions and the Atlantic Islands. The close ties between Norway and Iceland has made the question of textual origin all the more complicated, and continues to preoccupy scholars. The Icelanders were indeed champions of the historical genre. It is, however, generally conceded that the translation of most of the didactical material and court literature was a mainly Norwegian enterprise.

Religious Texts

The religious material preceded the secular texts. Soon, however, almost every genre was imported: religious and devotional texts; legends; heroic tales; and chivalric and romance material. The early missionaries depended on vernacular manuals to explain the main articles of the faith, to be able to celebrate Holy Mass, and to combat pagan rites and beliefs. The first clergy from the British Isles may have used homilies and liturgical material in Old English as this language was relatively close to Old Norse.

A fairly considerable body of religious literature in the vernacular existed in both Iceland and in Norway by the middle of the 12th century. The texts in Humiliúbók for instance may possibly have existed as a fixed collection from the end of the 11th century on. However, the majority of translations – regardless of genre – were undertaken during the rule of Håkon Håkonsson in the 13th century. The Old Norse version of Vitae Patrum, for example, survived as part of a large Icelandic codex known as Staerri Stjórn, along with Romverja saga, Alexanders saga, and Gy in ga saga. This collection apparently functioned as a comprehensive world history.

The historical texts of Scripture seem to have captured the Norsemen’s imagination early on. Nevertheless, an attempt at a comprehensive translation of the historical material of the Old Testament was not initiated until the beginning of the 14th century, when Stjórn – one of the last Norwegian translations – was produced at the request of Håkon Magnusson. Vulgata was its main source, but Stjórn also contains material from Comestor’s Historia scholastica and Beauvais’ Speculum historiale, as well as proverbial material from various authoritative sources (i.e., Disticha Catonis). Proverbs were ideal because of their short and concise form and found their equivalence in old native proverbial literature, such as for instance Hávamál.

The Old Norse translators of religious and devotional material carefully edited their work, rearranging and adapting the selected texts according to the needs of the native audience. Many texts were augmented with quotations, commentaries, and personal reflections, and almost all included general advice in matters pertaining to good Christian conduct.

Court Literature from the French Territories

By 1220, Norway experienced a period of relative peace and prosperity after years of civil war. The elite now had time for recreation and entertainment and wanted to emulate European courtiers. New models for appropriate political and social behavior were needed. These models were found in the court literature from the French-speaking territories, in stories narrating the exploits of legendary heroes in chivalric tales of Arthurian, Carolingian, and Breton origin.

The French court literature derived from mainly three traditions: the matière de Bretagne (represented by the works of Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France), the matière de France (adventure novels such as Flores oc Blantzeflor and Elis saga ok Rósamunde), and the matière de Rome (Alexanders saga, Romverja, and Trojumanna saga). Medieval tales of other origins, such as Tristan and Isolde (translated into Old Norse in 1226) and various legends associated with Charlemagne (especially the Chanson de Roland) were recorded in Old Norse before or around 1250.

Chronicles and Historical Texts

The matière de Rome, of mainly Latin provenance, was persistently presented as chivalric romance, even though it included a number of foreign Latin chronicles on various topics, such as Einhard’s Karlamagnús saga and Monmouth’s Breta sögur. The very first Vita Caroli Magni had been written not long after Charlemagne’s death in Spain in 840. This text soon gave birth to a tradition of chansons de geste, which in the beginning shared some of the same features as the Breton lais: they were musical poems belonging to the repertory of the countless jesters and troubadours who performed along the many pilgrim routes. The genres intermixed: the gesta with the historia: the legenda with the chronica. Both heroic epic and chivalric romance literature enjoyed great popularity in Norway, as it combined physical action and chivalry with good Christian values.

How Was the Material Presented and How Was It Received?

How was the foreign material presented and how was it received? The incentive behind the translation of historical, legendary, and heroic court literature cannot have been merely entertainment as some of the prefaces so ardently claim, especially that of Strengleikar. Entertainment was but one aspect. Almost all the texts contain didactical digressions and interlinear commentary. The Lai of Equitan is a good example. This basically funny slapstick-humor story had no didactical intention in its original French form. The Norse translator, however, expanded the epilogue lavishly with his own material, referring to biblical figures (Abraham, Job and Lazarus), quoting Saint Augustine, and introducing proverbial sayings in Latin.

The translated material captured the imagination of the Norwegian audience. What is peculiar is the insistence upon giving these texts of very different linguistic and geographical origin the status of sögur (even riddarasögur) regardless of their textual provenance or style. The translators consciously or unconsciously combined the different imported texts with existing literary conventions, creating a specific Old Norse courteous (kurteiz) style. The foreign was made familiar through compliance with and adaptation of the traditional.

Histories and Stories

When considering the relationship between history and story, between history and legend, between legend and exemplum, we must not forget the essentially oral aspect of medieval literature. Knowledge dissemination in medieval Norway reflected contemporaneous reading habits. Texts were written for oral performance. A medieval reader would read aloud, even when he (or she) was alone. Legenda literally means “to be read” – implicitly “to be read aloud.”

In Norway, the orally performed story signified the continuation of existing literary conventions. The old form helped introduce the new content. Foreign hagiographic material, Christian chivalric and heroic ideals mixed with the traditions of the former pagan society. Action was preferred to psychology. By conforming to existing literary conventions, the unfamiliar story of other became the plausible story of self: and the foreign was domesticated.

To a medieval readership and audience, any story could convey fundamental universal truth. Some of the imported stories may have been used by the clergy as exempla, thereby crossing the border between fact and fiction. The secular court literature in Old Norse translation must therefore be considered a supplement to the devotional material that preceded it, as it, too, aimed at instilling in the native population new role models and at consolidating religious beliefs. Indeed, the voice of the translators, heard in the interlinear commentaries, reveals to what extent translators looked upon themselves as social and religious educators.

Looking at the history of translation in medieval Norway, the impression is that of a nation of neophytes struggling to keep up with European intellectual currents and relentlessly working to fully introduce, nourish and maintain the faith. However, this is only a half-truth. The texts also served a political agenda, namely the defense and institution of the Christian king. The translation of Honorius of Autun’s Elucidarium – composed in response to the embarrassing controversy over lay investiture in the 11th and 12th centuries – and Hugh of Saint Victor’s Soliloquium de arrha animae, in conjunction with the compilation of Konungs skuggsjá, must be understood as the native clergy’s need for teaching material in matters pertaining to theology in general and power sharing between Crown and Church in particular. A Christian King was subordinate to Christ, i.e., the Church and its institutions. According to the Church, kings owed allegiance to God first and men next. This was quite contrary to the Old Norse tradition in which religion and politics had been considered distinct but separate aspects of social life and where kings had been chosen amongst peers.

The Black Death: The Disintegration of Social and Political Structures

Due to a series of political, demographic, and climatic circumstances in the 14th century, literary activity all but ceased in Norway; however, some of the court literature entered the popular tradition and lived on in the form of ballads and folksongs. The remnants of sögur in some cases became adventure stories – or eventyr, taking on native dress and starting a new life independent of scholarly learning.

The devastation of the Black Plague weakened an already fragile political system and opened up for an increased presence of Danish administrators. The Norwegian court moved to Sweden in 1319 when Magnus VII Eriksson, still a child, was acclaimed King of both countries. This union was the first in a series of partnerships and agreements that would weaken the authority of the Norwegian National Council.

The Old Norse language, which had become standardized in the 12th century, continued to be used by the administration until the end of the 14th century when Danish was adopted. The Kalmar Treaty of 1397 marked the de facto beginning of the end of national sovereignty.

In the centuries following the Black Death, the Church was unable to provide adequate schooling for lack of people and revenues. Consequently, the prescriptive and normative influence of schools in matters of grammar and orthography was significantly diminished, causing a rapid mutation of the national tongue. By the 16th century, the Norwegian vernacular had roughly developed into the modern dialects we know today. The old language had been forgotten.

The Resurrection of National Pride: The Humanists of the Reformation Century

Both the Reformation and the inclusion of the country into the Danish kingdom were imposed upon the people and its leaders. The National Council was dissolved in 1536, and Norway was formally annexed to the kingdom of Denmark. Yet again, Norwegian mentality had to be remolded. Once more, the course must change. For a second time, translation played a part in the process, both in Denmark and in Norway. There was however a significant difference in intellectual focus. In Denmark, Lutheran pamphlets were imported, translated, and debated on a large scale. In Norway, the old sagas came to the fore.

Denmark became Norway’s main link to European humanism. There was direct contact between Danish intellectuals and leading humanists (i.e., Erasmus, José Badé, and Thomas More), and through personal friendships with Danish colleagues (Christiern Pedersen and Peder Palladius in particular) the reformed clergy in Bergen were indirectly connected to European humanism.

The Reformation demanded radical changes of both Norwegian society and mentality, and many essential issues had to be addressed. The dioceses were all in dire straits. Revenues were insufficient because the Crown had confiscated most of the church’s properties, reducing tithes and taxes. In Bergen, the abusive presence of the Hanseatic merchants, who controlled trade and commerce along the coast, was a sore point. It was widely believed that the Germans were responsible for the general moral decay. The city administrators therefore looked for ways to increase revenues, strengthen religious and moral education, and limit the humiliating privileges of the Hanseatics. In a context of growing frustration with the status quo, a handful of people started reexamining the past in search of solutions to the most urgent problems.

The ancient laws were translated and examined by legal experts – the only people able to read and interpret the Old Norse texts. Their study led to a heightened awareness of the sovereign past and the inherited rights and privileges of both church and people. The recovery of the past fostered an interest in the nation’s history and a yearning for a new national identity. Absalon Beyer read the material that was translated at the Chapter and used it as source material for Om Norgis Rige, his very touching personal comments on contemporary political and economical issues.

Beyer was indeed the first author of a Norwegian history since the saga writers, and Bergen may have emerged as a new cultural center had the civil and church administrations not been moved to Oslo in order to be closer to the King’s administration in Copenhagen. The intellectual circle in Oslo had both more people and money, and was resolutely more productive than the one in Bergen. This is where the governor resided, and where the reformed humanism grew to maturity in all its Latin apparel. The expression was mainly Latin, but the focus was purely national. Jens Nilssøn wrote Historia regum Norvegiae based on his private Old Norse manuscript collection. Halvard Gunnarssøn translated the kings’ sagas into Latin verse (Chronicon regum Norwegiae).

Towards the end of the century, when Lutheran doctrine had been effectively implemented and the counter-reformation had failed, the time was ripe for new input from abroad. Danish-born Hans Mogensen, Bishop of Trondheim, translated Philippe de Commynes’ Mémoires, his personal recollection of Louis XI and Charles VIII. This account was the only foreign vernacular history translated into Danish in the Reformation century. Mogensen’s successor, Anders Christensen Aarebo, turned to contemporary reformed French literature, translating the epic La sepmaine by Guillaume du Bartas. In his days, Bartas was considered as great as Ronsard. This translation marked the beginning of a new era for literature in the vernacular in Norway. It was the first timid return to French literature before Ludvig Holberg started composing satirical comedies in the spirit of Molière.


Translators in medieval Norway had needed imagination and inventiveness. New words had to be created and explained. However, the encounter with the foreign did not suppress the national; rather, it influenced and guided its evolution. The largely anonymous Old Norse translators sought and contributed to the inclusion of other in self, to the assimilation of new cultural values and concepts. The attitude had been extraverted and inclusive, dynamic and open.

European humanism had been a predominantly Latin enterprise, rooted in a long-felt need to re-establish the authoritative texts of Christianity which had been corrupted by generations of commentaries, glossing and compilation. The concern was for auctoritas, the quest was still universal truth. 16th-century Norwegian humanism was an introverted and exclusive activity, almost narcissic in nature, as scholars concentrated on the former self in an attempt to reestablish a sense of pride and nationhood and find workable solutions to fundamental societal problems. Almost the entire Reformation century was dedicated to exploring the nation’s not so distant, yet glorious and sovereign past. The movement that had started out as a vernacular phenomenon, ended as a Latin exercise at a time when the vernacular gained ground in other countries. The national identity was strengthened in this retrospective process. In Norway, the Renaissance term of ad fontes had found its own national expression.

Parties annexes