Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

The Nordic 'Civil Wars' in the High Middle Ages in a Comparative Perspective


Former 2017/2018 Social Sciences - Law


In this project, international scholars from humanistic disciplines and social sciences will study the Nordic “civil wars” in the period c. 1130-1260 in a comparative perspective. The project is guided by the following hypotheses:

- The Nordic “civil wars” were less chaotic than has been asserted when labelling them “civil war”, “anarchy”, or “breakdown of order”.
- These conflicts should be studied as regional conflicts, not as national ones. 

In order to investigate these theories, we will adopt a cross-disciplinary and comparative perspective:

- By including medieval scholars working on English, French and German medieval history, we will gain a deeper understanding of how the Nordic “civil wars” can be situated in a broader contemporary European context, something which is almost completely lacking in medieval scholarship.
- Our aim in involving political scientists and anthropologists working on civil wars in a more contemporary setting is to obtain insight into new approaches and theoretical perspectives on civil wars, and to utilise these perspectives on medieval civil wars. This arises from the idea that modern and medieval civil wars share many characteristics, and that by bringing specialists dealing with these separate fields together it will give new insight.

During Fall 2017, a group of social scientists and medieval historians will discuss and develop a theoretical framework applicable for studying civil wars in the Middle Ages. In Spring 2018, medieval historians working with Nordic as well as Continental Europe will work together on the issues of comparing civil wars in different places in Europe, and tracing patterns of interaction between these various areas, taking care to analyse the conflicts at both local, regional, national and supranational levels.

The main goal of the project is to write two books on Nordic civil wars in a European context incorporating a cross-disciplinary approach

End Report

  • Were your results as expected, or did your research take other directions than outlined in your project description?

One of the most central insights from the project is that ‘civil wars’ is a misleading label for the conflicts in High Medieval Scandinavia, partly because the term connotes a form of breakdown that is not sustained in the sources, and partly because the conflicts in the period are ‘travelling’ between various areas in Scandinavia. 

The cooperation with scholars studying modern conflicts has made us more aware of the similarities between medieval and modern conflicts (as well as some crucial differences), and the potential for borrowing models not only from anthropology, but also from political science. ‘New wars’ and ‘constant crisis’ are concepts which have proven useful in a medieval context. 

In a medieval Scandinavian setting, close cooperation and close reading of texts has made us more alert to national traditions and blind spots, and it has highlighted the entangledness of Scandinavian networks, dynasties, and conflicts. Discussions with non-Scandinavian scholars have brought to the fore some divergences with European conflicts, most notably the importance of fortifications and territorial power. The futility of demarcating a period of ‘civil war’ has emerged clearly, giving way to a view of conflicts as intrinsic and most often productive in medieval societies. 

  • How did your group work together during the year at CAS? 

The cooperation with modern scholars was totally new to us, and even though we import theories and models from social sciences, we have never been working closely and comparatively with them. In particular, the similarities between modern Guinea-Bissau and medieval Scandinavia were surprising to find.

Moreover, the very close connections within Scandinavia came somewhat surprisingly, particularly since we devoted much energy to discuss how the lack of sources in Sweden can be counteracted. Arguing ex silentio is of course no option, but the close dynastic links to Sweden hints at its importance. Moreover, we were able to broaden the political field in Denmark by including a ‘southern Scandinavian power field.’ Finally, the importance of what we labelled ‘genealogical accidents’ was notable.

Since we were all gathered at the same place, and in the first two months sharing offices, cooperation was tight. Apart from the regular and irregular meetings described previously, we had frequent ad hoc discussions on matters that arose there and then. Since most participants were present for a minimum of three months, we had the opportunity for discussing matters in a long-term perspective.

  • Why was a year at CAS important for this project?

The fact that we were all working full-time on the same project made this year completely different from previous projects we have engaged in. We had worked together with parts of the group, but always only by meeting for a few days and otherwise communicating per mail or phone. Staying together at CAS provided us with a much larger opportunity for progressing further, both in close reading of texts together, as well as in discussing the overarching ideas of the project. 

Our project was in effect separated into two parts: the modern scholars in the fall; the medievalists in the spring. Both projects had an intense phase of winding up, and -- naturally -- most of the writing was done during the last month. Whereas we tried to start the writing process earlier, we realized that the CAS experience consisted of using more time than usual to look for answers and to explore instead of closing down questions early on. We are therefore convinced that working so intensely made us find insights which we would never have had the time and patience to pursue in the daily routine of academic life. 

  • Are there any plans for continuing the collaborations initiated during your stay at CAS?

We have not finished our projects from CAS. Our first book is not far from publishing, but the second one needs more time. This was planned from the early stages, as we knew that it would be impossible to produce a good product before the summer. The three core members (Esmark, Sigurðsson, Orning) will therefore meet regularly during the next year, sometimes also with the ‘outer group’ (Benham, Hermanson, Poulsen).

We want to continue this strand of research, but have not yet found out exactly how. It will probably make a good starting point for EU applications.


  • Afsah, Ebrahim
    Associate Professor University of Copenhagen 2017/2018
  • Althoff, Gerd
    Professor Em. University of Münster 2017/2018
  • Benham, Jenny
    Lecturer Cardiff University 2017/2018
  • Comaroff, John
    Professor Harvard University 2017/2018
  • Esmark, Kim
    Associate Professor University of Roskilde 2017/2018
  • Hermanson, Lars
    Professor University of Gothenburg 2017/2018
  • Poulsen, Bjørn
    Professor Aarhus University 2017/2018
  • Rosén, Frederik
    Senior Researcher University of Copenhagen 2017/2018
  • Vigh, Henrik Erdman
    Professor University of Copenhagen 2017/2018
  • Vogt, Helle
    Professor University of Copenhagen 2014/2015, 2017/2018, 2021/2022
  • White, Stephen D.
    Professor Em. Emory University 2017/2018
  • Østerud, Øyvind
    Professor University of Oslo (UiO) 2017/2018

Previous events


Group leader

  • Hans Jacob Orning

    Title Professor Institution University of Oslo (UiO) Year at CAS 2017/2018
  • Jón Viðar Sigurðsson

    Title Professor Institution University of Oslo (UiO) Year at CAS 2007/20082017/2018