Constructing Legitimacy amongst Mobile Elites in Northman-Ruled Polities in the Long Ninth Century
From the southern shores of the Caspian Sea to the western coast of Ireland, Scandinavian and Scandinavian-derived groups (I call them ‘Northmen’, this being both usefully vague and reflective of the language of many of our sources) were a familiar sight. From the end of the eighth century onwards, these people had a measurable political impact on the societies they encountered, culminating in the creation of new, Northman-ruled, polities over the course of the ninth century. In this year-long project at Tübingen, I look at four of them: Dublin, East Anglia, Viking-ruled Frisia, and the Rus’ in north-eastern Europe. Northman impact was comparable; but not uniform. Looking at Harald the Younger, who became a Christian and a fideliis of the Frankish kings, ruling the flat and coastal island of Walcheren (which I can actually see out of the plane window as I write this) and Olaf “the White” of Dublin who met his end in the mountains of Scotland as a pagan raider, the differences are obvious – but the similarities too are striking, not least that they were probably related.
As such, my project looks at the different ways Northmen ruling outside Scandinavia legitimised their rule. This involves determining how similar these polities are, and how much of that similarity can be traced back to a specifically Scandinavian heritage rather than simply being functional similarities (the presence of nobles called ‘jarls’ in Ireland, Britain and western Europe, for instance, being the former; but the role of prowess in battle as a legitimating device likely to be the latter). It also involves looking at their differences, and where these might have sprung from. After all, different regions of Scandinavia were different; rulers who left Scandinavia – to say nothing of those who were born in the diaspora – had different life experiences possibly stretching back decades before settling down to rule; and the places they ruled had their own political cultures of which account needed to be taken.
This project is a rigorous comparative study of political culture during a time when mobile Northman elites were claiming rule over new territories. It brings together regional historiographies and answers calls for a sensitive and nuanced examination of Northman-ruled polities. It also contributes to wider ongoing discussions of the political and ideological role played by mobile military elites in Late Antiquity and the earlier Middle Ages. This project promises to deepen our understanding of how Northmen (specifically) and mobile elites (more generally) negotiated their authority and justified their right to rule.