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.