Erling’s final drama.
Most thoughtful, adult Norwegians know Erling Skjalgsson from Snorre Sturluson’s sagas of the kings. The most memorable account concerns his final battle. Shortly before Christmas, 1028, Erling met the king and future saint, Olav, in battle not far from Stavanger. He fought so bravely that the king is said to have offered him a pardon. Proudly, Erling responded, “Face to face will eagles meet!” He laid down his helmet and sword. The king slashed Erling’s cheek with his axe, saying: “Thus I brand the betrayer of the king.” In that moment Erling’s second cousin, Aslak Fitjaskalle, rushed forward and split Erling’s skull. Dismayed, the king cried, “Now you have struck Norway out of my hands.” In the saga, this blow of the axe is said to have sealed Olav’s fate: a year and a half later he met his death at Stiklestad -- partially because those opposed to the king hoped to avenge the killing of Erling, the popular farmer-chieftain. Interpreted in this way, the confrontation in Trøndelag can be seen as Erling’s final battlefield and the Trønder warriors his last mainstay. This account in the saga might possibly reflect back upon another, earlier connection -- the relationship between Erling and Olav Tryggvason. . . .
Erling - the new, dominant central power’s foremost challenger.
What is distinctive about Erling Skjalgsson is that he became something of a prism reflecting back upon the dramatic struggles that the so-called Christian kings, Olav Tryggvason and Olav Haraldsson, initiated a thousand years ago. Usually Erling is presented as the spokesman for the old Norwegian social system: for minor kings, the Thing system and the Aasa religion. The most powerful of the great chieftains, and the most quarrelsome, he refused to submit quietly to “the new order.” But, having reached a favorable agreement with Olav Tryggvason, he came to terms with him at the Gula Thing in 996. He is said to have accepted baptism in return for receiving the hand of the king’s sister, Astrid, in marriage. In compensation for his conversion, Erling also was able to maintain his power from Sogn to Lindesnes, an area larger than Belgium. He ruled over this western Norwegian kingdom for fully 32 years.
Erling and Olav Tryggvason -- an underestimated alliance.
Erling’s marriage might have been more important to Olav Tryggvason than the account in the sagas indicates. If we study, for example, parts of Snorre other than those directly dealing with the relationship between the two Norwegian leaders, Erling and Olav, we observe that Olav chose Nidaros as the capital of his short-lived kingdom (995-1000). It is for that reason the Olav Tryggvason is considered the founder of Trondheim, which celebrates its 1000 years’ jubilee in 1997. Although Vestland, from the earliest of times, had been the pivotal point in coastal Norway -- the North Way -- Olav chose Nidaros. Olav’s choice is usually explained, as Claus Krag says in the recently published Norgeshistorieverket [The History of Norway] (Vol. 2), in that “Nidaros was where the 'North Way met the rich Trønder communities.” But another explanation might have been overlooked. Olav, through the marriage of his sister, Astrid, to Erling, had affirmed the Vestland as Erling’s domain. Thereby he could choose as his capital neither Rogaland (Sola-Stavanger-Avaldsnes) nor Hordaland (Bjørgvin, the modern day Bergen).
The Rogaland king’s network of alliances.
There is another, additional element that suggests the value to Olav of his relationship with Erling. Erling had an extensive network of alliances with chieftains all along the Norwegian coast from Rogaland to Troms. Sigrid, Erling’s sister, had married into one of the most important northern Norwegian families, the Trondenes clan. Through her marriage to Sigurd of Trondenes, the brother of the powerful Tore Hund of Bjarkøy, Sigrid cemented a bond between the northerners and her brother, Erling, the Sola-chieftain in the south. These networks can be considered vital political alliances intended to maintain a certain social stability. Olav Tryggvason, through his reconciliation with Erling at the Gula Thing in 996, became a participant in these alliances. Seen from this perspective, Olav’s choice, in 997, of Nidaros as his capital becomes more understandable. He had not, during his previous “year of rule,” established secure power bases. Erling Skjalgsson became the key to his consolidation of power. In order not to challenge the Rogaland King, as Erling was called, Olav’s natural choice for his capital was Nidaros.
A close relationship between Olav and Erling?
In his new history of Norway, Claus Krag asserts that, because of questionable sources, the Olav Saga is one of the most problematic of the existing royal sagas. Nevertheless, he accepts certain essential points, such as the founding of Nidaros under Olav. One of the most disputed sagas is Odd Munk’s saga of Olav Tryggvason. Here the relationship between Olav and Erling is expanded beyond what we find in Snorre. Odd’s saga tells the fantastic legend of how Olav Tryggvason escaped the Battle of Svolder and, tired of war and killing, ended his days in a cloister. One of the sensational aspects of this legend is that Olav is supposed to have sent a messenger to his sister, Astrid, and her husband, Erling, telling them about his pious decision. When, with great astonishment, they received the letter, the envoy produced Olav’s knife and ring, to convince them of the “truth” of the message. Historians consider the tale to be pure legend. But nevertheless, it might contain a reflection of a factual situation: perhaps there did exist a close relationship between Olav and his brother-in-law, Erling. Such a good relationship between King Olav and the King of Rogaland would explain more clearly why Olav, certain of dependable support from Erling, chose Nidaros as his capital.
Olav’s fall -- fatal for cooperative unification?
Olav Tryggvason fell in the year 1000, after only five years as king. When, fifteen years later, Olav Haraldsson made his bid to be the single king of Norway, the result was war. Erling was a thorn in the eye of the new Olav. Claus Krag explains why: “Erling was, without doubt, after Olav [Haraldsson] himself, the most powerful man in Norway in the 1020s. Or perhaps he was equally as powerful as the king.” Olav did not want to permit the King of Rogaland to continue to rule as before. Olav Haraldsson was not interested in continuing the relationship of relatively equal cooperation which had, perhaps, existed between Olav Tryggvason and Erling Skjalgsson. Haraldsson’s new style of governing violated Erling’s cultural values, derived, as they were, from the old Norwegian Thing society. They went against Erling’s fundamental political ideals. The sagas describe Erling as Olav’s most intelligent and strongest adversary. Even today, Snorre’s thrilling descriptions of how Erling punished Olav at Karmøy in 1023, the so-called Selsbane episode, remains one of the pearls of our literature.
Erling -- spokesman for the old Norwegian principals of justice.
Olav Haraldsson issued a law restricting the right of Erling to freely sell grain . When Asbjørn, Erling’s nephew, of the Trondenes clan from Troms, wanted to purchase grain from his uncle, Erling circumvented the king’s law. Asbjørn headed home with the necessary provisions, but was stopped by the king’s ally at Karmøy, and the grain was confiscated. The ally treated Asbjørn with such contempt, that, later, Asbjørn returned seeking revenge. When he arrived on Karmøy, Asbjørn did not realize that the king was present. Ignoring Olav, Asbjørn attacked his enemy, the king’s ally, and blood from the decapitated corpse spattered onto the king’s lap. The king wanted to execute Asbjørn on the spot, but was advised to wait a few days because of the Easter observances. In the meantime, Erling, gathering together more than 1,000 men, swiftly rowed to Avaldsnes, on Karmøy, and surrounded the church in which the king was worshipping at Easter mass. When the king left the church he faced an overwhelmingly superior force, and had no choice but to reach an accommodation with Erling. Asbjørn avoided execution by entering the king’s service. And Erling, for his part, demonstrated that he dared to question the king’s decisions. Erling asserted the old Norse principle of justice that said that if the king violated the law, he was to suffer harsher punishment than would ordinary people.
Erling -- as political leader of coastal Norway.
As the leader of a kingdom that extended from Sogn to Lindesnes, Erling had to define his power. From his headquarters at Sola, he probably also ruled the present Bergen, if Bjørgvin, at it was called in the Middle Ages, was a commercial center at that time. He also had diplomatic contact with other rulers around the North Sea Basin. Sola might be called one of the country’s first naval bases, probably a strategic point of departure for forays to the south and west. With its large number of boat houses, the area, from early times, has been something of a center for naval technology. Erling was, moreover, a powerful merchant -- with connections in Iceland and Greenland, yes, perhaps even in Vinland, in North America. It can be demonstrated that he was a friend of the well-known Vinland explorer, Snorre the Good. From Sola he traded, as well, with Europe. It is extremely likely that, at Sola, Erling toasted with French wine glasses as he discussed the political movements in the Europe of his time. As a close friend of Sigvat the Skald, he certainly valued minstrelsy. In addition to all of this he was the enterprising owner of large agricultural holdings. Erling Skjalgsson might be considered the first known Norwegian to introduce productivity incentives for his workers. He encouraged his slaves to work themselves up from slavery. His bonus-arrangements were probably an indication of his business sense, as was his ability to secure the political allies that formed the foundation of his society.
A historically conscious nation
It was natural for Erling to defend his rights against the new concept of a single king. His heroic resistance could not but impress the historians of later times, and especially the 13th century authors of the sagas. For one hundred years, in a small population of about 500,000, there appeared, every fifth year, a new royal saga. This is a publication frequency that not even our modern publishers can match. This exceptional and active historical consciousness might be interpreted as an expression of royalty’s need to legitimize medieval Norway as a intact nation, for example against Danish demands for hegemony. Therefore the Norwegian historians of the time, projecting their political attitudes back to Erling, portrayed him as a traitor to God and country because he interfered with saintly King Olav’s drive to unify the nation and to evangelize Christianity. When the school of modern Norwegian historical studies was founded in the last century, the great pioneers of history, among them P.A. Munch, renewed this view of Erling. They had their own political plan. They wanted to justify the rebirth of the nation, of a united and Christian Norway. There was no room for a positive discussion of Erling’s political deviations....
Progress is not necessarily on the winning side.
The example of Erling demonstrates that history’s mill grinds slowly. Truth is not victorious in and of itself; it requires a little help. A thousand years were needed to lead Erling out of the shadows of treason. At the same time we can define him as a political visionary, even though of a political system that failed a thousand years ago: the old Norwegian Thing system -- small kingdoms -- or a composite of many kingdoms. That is not to say that the failure of that system meant that it was “bad” or outmoded. No natural law guarantees an eternal upward spiral in the quality of society. Wars in the former Yugoslavia should demonstrate this.
Erling -- as an expression of an early Scandinavian “Distinctive Way”?
Erling and other great Norwegian chieftains were clearly defeated by a superior force, a power that, through Olav Haraldsson, was an offshoot of the “modern” European system: national states by the grace of God. Seen from a wider political perspective, the poly-centric, relatively horizontal society of Scandinavia lost out to the monocentric, vertical social system of the Continent and the British Isles. The Scandinavia of Viking times demonstrated a vitality that threatened the authority of the Church in Rome. Only after the Scandinavian minor kingdoms were forced to submit to the centralized control of church and state, could the existential threat from the north be tamed.
Olav Tryggvason represented the new European system. But we can not preclude the possibility that through his cooperation with Erling, his foreign ideological impact was modified. Whether we, as early as the year 1000, had a distinctively Norwegian process for national unification, based on cooperation between these two powerful men, is a question that can never be answered.