Cross and Scepter:
The Rise of the Scandinavian Kingdoms from the Vikings to the Reformation

Sverre Bagge

Princeton University Press 2014
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
Cross and Scepter focuses on state formation in pre-Reformation Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but its approach to that is broad enough that it comes close to being a general history of medieval Scandinavia.

Bagge begins with the Viking age, describing the origins of the three kingdoms in "a series of struggles between individual warlords from the ninth to the mid-eleventh century". He emphasizes the role of raiding expeditions and foreign policy more broadly and draws some comparisons with the kingdoms of Poland, Bohemia and Hungary, which had their origins around the same time.

The further consolidation of the kingdoms was intimately tied up with the introduction of Christianity. Bagge explores debates over the roles in this of missionaries and kings and describes the development of church institutions, ecclesiastical law, royal legislative powers and a court system. New military technology — heavy cavalry and castles — was also important, bringing a shift towards a more professional, elite army and the evolution of the leding service obligation into a tax.

Turning to social and economic history, Bagge looks at social structure, royal and ecclesiastical revenues, and the growth of towns and trade. He describes the gradual development of bureaucracies and courts, and the division of power between monarchy, aristocracy and the church — "the secular and ecclesiastical aristocracy controlled most of the revenues of the three countries, [but] the king could exploit the competition between them to achieve greater power than the modest resources under his direct control would indicate". He also touches on the early development of what could be called nationalism.

A chapter on culture touches on political theory, courtly culture, and links to European learning, which can be traced in the movements of individuals as well as in texts. It is difficult to ascertain the depth or intensity of popular religion; its more elite features are illustrated by the life of Saint Birgitta of Vadstena. And Snorri Stuluson and the Old Norse Heimskringla are contrasted with Saxo Grammaticus and the Latin Gesta Danorum.

A final chapter on the later Middle Ages returns to politics, going into quite some detail in its "brief summary" of the events leading up to the 1397 Kalmar Union, the struggles it brought, and its eventual dissolution. The focus here is on the relationship of monarchy and aristocracy and the role of councils of the realm in each of the three countries.

The body of the text touches on some debates (for example over Lönnroth's argument for class and trade as drivers of the 1434 Swedish rebellion), has some discussion of sources (Icelandic sagas, the King's Mirror, and so forth), and makes a few forays into archaeology (the Trelleborg fortified camp). A seven page historiographical afterword offers a broad survey of modern Scandinavian history-writing and perspectives on the medieval — nationalist, Marxist, and so forth — and of the limitations of the medieval source materials. Full footnoting is not provided, but there is a useful twelve page description of references, broken down by chapter.

Using clear language and avoiding narrowly academic concerns, Cross and Scepter is accessible to a broad audience. It will be useful to specialists wanting a regional perspective, but it also offers an excellent general overview for anyone curious about medieval Scandinavia after the Viking age.

July 2014

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%T Cross and Scepter
%S The Rise of the Scandinavian Kingdoms from the Vikings to the Reformation
%A Bagge, Sverre
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2014
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780691161501
%P 325pp