Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Hegemonic Memory, Counter-Memory, and Struggles for Royal Power: The Rhetoric of the Past in the Age of King Sverrir Sigurdsson of Norway

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Hegemonic Memory, Counter-Memory, and Struggles for Royal Power: The Rhetoric of the Past in the Age of King Sverrir Sigurdsson of Norway

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most memorable statement from die turbulent century of civil wars in Norway is about forgetting. In his Latin chronicle on Norwegian kings written 1177-1188, Theodoricus Monachus stated that it was better to forget the chaos in Norway following the death of Sigurdr jorsalafari in 1130:

Nos quoque hujus schedulae hie finem facimus, indignum valde judicantes memoriae: posterorum tradere scelera, homicidia, perjuria, parricidia, sanctorum locorum contaminationes, Dei contemptum, non minus religiosorum depraedationes quam totius plebis, mulierum captivationes et ceteras abominationes, quas longum est enumerare. (Storm 1880, 67)

[And here I too shall end this little document of mine, since I deem it utterly unfitting to record for posterity the crimes, killings, perjuries, parricides, desecrations of holy places, the contempt for God, the plundering no less of the clergy than of the whole people, the abductions of women, and other abominations which it would take long to enumerate.] (Theodoricus Monachus 1998, 53)

In his prologue to the chronicle, Theodoricus seems to be motivated to rescue the history of the Norwegian kings from oblivion by recording the few relics he has found on them (Hermann 2009, 289-90). The statement at the end of his chronicle seems, on the other hand, to be what has been termed "active forgetting" and seen as "a necessary and constructive part of internal social transformations" (1) (Assmann 2008, 97-8). Still, Theodoricus's call to forget the recent history of Norway functions most of all as a reminder of the bitter struggles between King Magnus Erlingsson (1161-84) and the new contender for the throne, Sverrir Sigurdsson (1177-1202). Sverrir eventually became sole ruler after his victory over Magnus at the Battle at Fimreiti in 1184. At the time Theodoricus was writing his chronicle, the situation was far from stable, with several new claimants to a royal title. Even if the chronicle was written after 1184, those who fought against Sverrir had at times control over large parts of the country. (2) At the same time, according to the prologue to Sverris saga, Sverrir started to form his version of his story for his present as well as posterity in cooperation with the Icelandic monk Karl Jonsson.

Theodoricus's project of writing only of the ancient kings has a certain ring of nostalgia to it, holding up the past as something superior to his present time. Gabrielle Spiegel's observation on French chronicle writing is adequate also for Theodoricus: "the past becomes the repository of ... dreams and desires, both because it can offer up a consoling image of what once was and is no longer, and because it contains the elements by which to reopen the contest, to offer an alternative vision to a now unpalatable present" (Spiegel 1997, 211-2).

Memory (and forgetting) has, since the classical studies of Maurice Halbwachs, been seen as a social phenomenon, formed in the relationships between people rather than just a phenomenon in an individual's brain. Social memory is both an expression of and active binding force for group identity. At the same time, control of memory is linked to power, as Paul Connerton has phrased it: "[C]ontrol of a society's memory largely conditions the hierarchy of power" (Connerton 1989, I). This might be most evident in the cases of social struggles, for example, in situations of revolt and civil war: "Since memory is actually a very important factor in struggle ... if one controls people's memory, one controls their dynamism. And one also controls their experience, their knowledge of previous struggles" (Foucault 1996, 124).

This does not necessarily imply that there was only a single hegemonic memory culture at a given time. Different groups, such as (in the case of the late twelfth century) the Church, monasteries, traders, courtiers, and different networks fighting for the throne, could all use the same past in various ways and for different purposes. …

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