By the dawn’s Erling light, Part 2

Erling Skjalgsson (hero of my novels, The Year Of the Warrior and West Oversea to date) has held an ambivalent position in Norwegian historical memory. As a deadly opponent of King Olaf Haraldsson (who became St. Olaf, Norway’s patron saint) he landed on the wrong side of history. More than one historian has baldly called him a traitor.

And yet he never came under the kind of opprobrium that fell on his kinsman Thore Hund (Thore the Hound), who was one of Olaf’s killers. The Erling we meet in Heimskringla, a history which held a place next to the Bible in Norwegian homes, was just too attractive. To put it bluntly, St. Olaf looks rather shoddy next to Erling in Snorri Sturlusson’s account. Erling is tall, handsome, a liberator of slaves, and famously heroic. Olaf is short, fat, stubborn, proud, and rather vicious.

There’s sometimes a hint in the sagas (less in Heimskringla than in some others) that Olaf’s conflict with Erling and his kinsmen and allies was about the Christian faith. Doubtless that was how Olaf saw it too, since he was the kind of man who believed himself to be ordained by God, and that his enemies were God’s enemies.

But that wasn’t true. It was about government. It was about liberty, personal and regional rights, and a republican form of government.

It was a very American conflict, centuries in advance.

The Viking Age was the era when Norway became a nation. At the beginning of the Viking Age (the late 8th Century) there was no “Norway” as such, but a collection of counties (or petty kingdoms). By Erling’s time, national consolidation had begun, but the counties (they were called fylker) still held a great deal of independence. If they swore allegiance to a high king, it was by their own choice and on their own terms.

Erling was the most powerful man of the Gula Thing region, composed of four fylker, Rygjafylke (where Erling lived), Hordafylke (where his ancestors had come from), Sognafylke, and Firdafylke.

Each fylke was composed of four quarters. Within the quarters were local communities which held regular assemblies (called Things, of course) which every free man was required to attend under penalty of law. These local Things sent representatives to the Quarter Things, which in turn sent representatives to the Fylke Things, which sent representatives on to the Gula Thing (there were also four other great regional Things in the country. There was no national Thing).

The chief man of each fylke might call himself a king, or a jarl, or a hersir (Erling was a hersir). Such offices were hereditary, but were not automatically inherited. Leaders had to be confirmed by election at the Fylke Things. Election could be rescinded, if the chieftain did not give satisfaction.

We’re talking about republics here.

There’s an important scene in Heimskringla (I reprise it in The Year of the Warrior) when King Olaf Trygvesson (not to be confused with St. Olaf Haraldsson, who came later), offers a jarldom (the title of jarl, or earl) to Erling.

But Erling said: “Hersers have my kinsmen always been and I will have no higher rank than they. Yet this will I take from thee, O king, if thou wilt let me be the greatest of that name in the land.” (Erling Monson’s translation)

This is a pretty obscure bit of dialogue to modern readers, but to Snorri’s contemporaries, and to Norwegians for many generations, the meaning was clear.

Olaf was trying to reorganize the country. By offering Erling the title of jarl (more prestigious than hersir), he was in effect offering him a bribe to cooperate in messing with the ancient, republican system, doubtless bringing it closer to continental (Carolignian) standards. He was trying to strengthen the central monarchy and weaken the regional Things.

When Erling said no, it was something like George Washington turning down a crown during our Revolution.

It was also like an American states rights man, say, Robert E. Lee, resisting the expansion of federal power.

It was a state’s rights dispute.

10 thoughts on “By the dawn’s Erling light, Part 2”

  1. The American War for Independence was more one of the last of that sort of conflict. George of Hannover, being a German, didn’t know or appreciate our ancient English folkgerihten, and so he trampled all over them, and didn’t understand the New England Confederations appeal that he would honor them, and that they would even accept a lower standing as shires, instead of the States which they became, in exchange for representation in the English Parliament (which held no authority over them, just as it does not over Australia or Canada).

    As to Robert E. Lee, that was just his personal loyalty to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Surely you don’t imagine that the anti-States rights Slave States, having won the Dred Scott decision only two years previous, an anti-State’s rights case, seceded because Lincoln had promised to ignore that ruling and not enforce the Fugitive Slave Act upon the Free States, suddenly became in favor of State’s rights? That is the Slaver Revisionist line, and it is absurd.

  2. It also helps to understand that the Free States were settled by the Roundheads – the Parliamenters, and the Slave States were settled by the Cavaliers. England and the King teamed up to dissolve American legislatures and occupied Boston and New York. It was 1644 all over again.

  3. I do not accept the argument of Confederate apologists that secession had nothing whatever to do with slavery, but I see no reason to reject their arguments wholesale, either. I think a right to secede is implied in the Constitution, and that Lincoln’s decision to send troops to enforce the Union was very shaky, considered on constitutional grounds. Does anybody really think the Constitution would have been ratified if the delegates had been told, “Of course you know, there’s no exit from this union. Try to leave and we’ll send in troops to suppress you.”

    In the end I always take my stand with the Union. But I can see the strength of the opposing argument. I have the greatest respect for Robert E. Lee. “State” means “state,” not province.

  4. I agree that there is a right to secede and a basis for considering the union null and void, or the present government to have abrogated itself and the several States call a new election.

    However, the Slave States attacked the Union first. It was only in response to two military attacks against the Free States (Ft. Sumpter and the First Battle of Bull Run) (not counting Bleeding Kansas where I had abolitionist ancestors), that Lincoln, finally inaugurated (it happened in late April in those days) responded.

  5. I believe “the peculiar institution of slavery” was the operative clause for many at the time. South Carolina makes a big deal about being independent in their secession document, but I think–but haven’t read clearly–that they were primarily protecting the slave economy.

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