Centre for Advanced Study

at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

The Power of the Ruler and the Ideology of Rulership in Nordic Culture 800-1200


Former 2007/2008 Humanities - Theology


Power/ideology of rulership is a central element in the development of society, religion and culture in the Nordic societies in the period of transition from the Viking Age to The Middle Ages. By ‘nordic societies’ is meant the societies within the geographical area of the Nordic countries and the north societies within the North Atlantic islands as well. The period studied will encompass the change of religion in the late Viking Age and this will make terms such as change, transformation and continuity important. Ideology of rulership is deliberately chosen as the focal point for a broad spectre of analyses because the political, social and religious changes in the period become visible in the ideas and practice linked to the kings, earls and chieftains. One of the main theses in the project is that ideology of rulership can be regarded as a focal point for the transformation of the Nordic culture and religion from the 9th to the 13th century. The scholarly debate concerning rulership and its ideological foundation has until now mainly focused on the relationship between the Nordic countries and Europe in the High Middle Ages. The epoch preceding the 12th and the 13th centuries has received little attention, and thus also the questions concerning the pre-Christian contribution and its possible transformations in the Middle Ages. This complex field of research, with broad implications for source criticism, method- and theory-developing, has not yet been underlain a broad, interdisciplinary investigation. The actual group of scholars will represent the fields of history of religion, history, Norse and anglosaxon philology, archaeology and place-name research.

End Report

The focus of the project is the power of the ruler and the ideology of rulership in the Nordic countries from 800 AD until 1200 AD. An interdisciplinary research group representing the disciplines of History of Religion, History, Philology, Archaeology and Celtic studies has examined the ideological, symbolical and empirical traces of power, and how this changed within the Nordic culture and societies from the Viking to the Medieval Age.

With ‘Nordic societies’ is meant the formation of societies within the geographical area of modern Norway, Sweden and Denmark, as well as Ireland and the North Atlantic islands. The period studied encompasses the change of religion in the late Viking Age and this has, in turn, made terms such as change, transformation and continuity in the expression of power important.

A few examples of the problems that has been encountered and the analyses which are carried out are:

  • the ideas, the myths and the ritual apparatus surrounding the ruler
  • the genealogical traditions of the ruling families; halls and grave mounds as institutional elements in the cultural landscape
  • symbols of dignity manifested in artefacts and iconography
  • gender aspects tied to the sphere of power
  • connections between the formation of society and rulership in the Nordic mainland kingdoms and in Ireland and the islands of the North Atlantic

Questions regarding the construction of identity among the different peoples through the ideology of rulership have also been posed.

Through intensive interdisciplinary work, analysis of sources, debates of methods and theories, and discussions about the relationships between religion, society and power, the members of the group have been able to deepen their understanding of important cultural developments and changes in the North culture from Viking to Medieval Age. The opportunity to work at CAS for a whole year gave us the greatest possibility to concentrate on research ever given to any member of the group, an experience highly appreciated. As a year invited to CAS ought to be something different from the individual sabbatical year, the research was organized as real co-work, with preferred long-term stay at CAS for the persons invited to the group. Thus, the scholarly discussions could go on from day to day over a long period.

The continuity of the co-work was utterly made possible by the material structures at CAS: the members having offices next door to each other and the possibility to meet around a big table several times a week. Not least, it was the excellent staff at CAS that made the daily work so easy for us, solving any problem in such a smooth and friendly way that everybody felt comfortable. The staff made whatever they could to let us spend all our energy on the scholarly work.

One year is a short time to finish a project. When we in June had to end our activity at CAS, we invited a number of internationally well-known scholars to a workshop at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, asking for feedback on our preliminary results. We did get a lot of input during these days, positive as well as critical ones. Not least, we got a lot of incentives to continue and fulfil the project.

The three members of the group employed at the University of Oslo, Steinsland, Sigurðsson and Rekdal, will, together with Beuermann from the Netherlands, take the project further on, inviting scholars to workshops and publish the main results of the project as a common book by an international publisher. The project started at CAS will thus continue in the form of a research group at the University of Oslo.

Another result of the CAS project concerns the teaching: A new entity for study in Norse and Irish culture with focus on society, religion and rulership will be offered at UiO from the spring-term 2009.

For the historians of religion, the daily co-work with historians resulted in new insights of the relationship between religion and society. The literary fields were deeply challenged by historical and archaeological methods, and vice versa. We all seemed to develop a new understanding of important relations between power, ideology, myths and rituals in a common north-European warrior culture of the late Viking Age. The hypothesis that important element of the pre-Christian ruler-ideology continued into the early Middle Ages, transformed or transferred, have been strengthened through the project. It was not until the middle of the 13th century that the European rulership ideology really got hold on the Nordic culture.

Though the change of religion was a crucial event in the development of the Nordic cultures in late Viking Age, there seems to have been more of ideological continuity than realized by earlier scholarship. These results are interesting in the broader scholarly debate about centre and periphery in the European Middle Ages and the discussion weather the Nordic countries did contribute with something of their own in the development of a new European culture in the Medieval Age.


  • Beuermann, Ian
    Dr. Humboldt University of Berlin 2007/2008, 2012/2013
  • Hernæs, Per Fredrik
    First Curator Hernæs Arkintel 2007/2008
  • Hultgård, Anders
    Professor Em. Uppsala University 2007/2008
  • Rekdal, Jan Erik
    Professor University of Oslo (UiO) 2007/2008, 2012/2013
  • Schjødt, Jens Peter
    Professor Aarhus University 2007/2008
  • Sigurðsson, Jón Viðar
    Professor University of Oslo (UiO) 2007/2008, 2017/2018
  • Skorzewska, Joanna
    Dr. 2007/2008
  • Sundqvist, Olof
    Senior Lecturer University of Gävle 2007/2008

Previous events

Group leader

  • Gro Steinsland

    Title Professor Institution University of Oslo (UiO) Year at CAS 2007/2008