Rolv Nøtvik Jacobsen
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A history of its own? The Catholic era as presented in Norwegian history-writing during the eighteenth century

There was a surge of historical writing in Denmark–Norway during the eighteenth century. Norwegian historical writing forms the centre of attention in this chapter. By way of examining sources of various kinds, it is argued that Norwegian historiographers eschewed the Middle Ages in pursuit of a pre-Christian past in which the nucleus of proto-national sentiment is to be found. The sheer richness of the material, made accessible to common readers by early-eighteenth-century historical writers, made historical treatises into archives filled with stories and information about a once-upon-a-time independent kingdom with a glorious past and even an ancient pre-history. The foundation of an independent Norwegian nation was to be found in its myths and in the valiant deeds of its earliest heroes.

In 1814, after more than four hundred years of union with Denmark, Norway was suddenly declared an independent kingdom. This put an end to a complicated relationship. Since 1660, Norway and Denmark had been kingdoms with an equal status under the same king, and Norway was no longer regarded as a vassal state but rather as part of ‘the twin monarchies’ of Denmark–Norway. The political influence of the nobility had been dramatically reduced in 1660, as the Assembly of the Estates of the Realm in Copenhagen decided to give the king absolute power and even make the throne hereditary. The Norwegian Council of the Realm, which had been led by the Catholic archbishop in Norway up until the Reformation, had not been in operation since 1537. Ludvig Holberg saw a turning point in Norwegian history in the events of 1660: from now on, Norway was no longer regarded as a ‘province’, but rather as a kingdom of its own right under the absolute king.1

The new political situation after 1660 paved the way for written presentations of Norway and its history, much in the same way as already published books on Danish history.2 One favoured way of creating such presentations was by making use of the older texts which were rediscovered and translated in the latter half of the seventeenth century, such as the numerous Islandic sagas, many of which dealt with Norwegian history. Snorri’s sagas of the Norwegian kings were especially suitable for the purpose. According to Snorri, the Norwegian kingdom was hereditary from the beginning and the king portrayed as an absolute ruler. Later historians took a cue from Snorri. The political order of Medieval Norway could in fact be invoked in order to impart a sense of historical legitimacy to the absolutism that was introduced in Denmark in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

The writing of such histories called for careful handling, however. Until the union with Denmark in 1387, Norway had been an independent, and Catholic, kingdom. Moreover, Catholic ecclesiastics had played a crucial role in the Norwegian resistance to the Lutheran Reformation instigated by the Danish king. In comparison to Denmark and Sweden, very few, if any, citizens in the Norwegian part of the kingdom were Lutherans or Protestants in the 1530s. The opposition to the King’s Reformation was led by the Norwegian Assembly of Estates, with the last Catholic archbishop, the Norwegian-born Olav Engelbrektson (c. 1480–1538), as its leader. The Archbishop resided in Trondheim, at the shrine of the ‘eternal king of Norway’, St Olav. Engelbrektson had to flee the country in 1537. In order to erase the memory and the cult of the so-called eternal king of Norway, Danish officials buried the body of St Olav in an unknown grave some years after the Reformation (a course of events markedly different to the treatment of St Erik in Sweden following the Reformation; see Chapter 7). As the Danish king had all of a sudden declared the Norwegians to be Lutherans, the memory of St Olav and the Norwegian Catholic past could potentially threaten the union of Norway and Denmark under one Danish and Lutheran king.

Consequently, authors of historical chronicles had to somehow portray the history of Norway in a way that legitimated the ideology of the twin monarchy of Denmark–Norway, without making its Catholic past a burden. Starting with Tormod Torfæus’ (1636–1719) magnum opus Historia Rerum Norvegicarum from 1711, this chapter will investigate the ways in which the ambiguity of the histories of the twin kingdoms came to be displayed in the Norwegian and Danish historiography of the eighteenth century. In a given political situation, such stories of an independent Norwegian kingdom could trigger ideas of political independence from Denmark, because it could be argued that a once-independent kingdom might benefit from regaining its independence. This was clearly the interpretation of Norwegian historians of the late nineteenth century, writing in the aftermath of Norwegian independence from Denmark in 1814.

The main part of the present chapter deals with the works of the historians Ludvig Holberg, Gerard Schøning (1722–1780) and Peter Suhm (1728–1798), and it ends with a reading of some literary works by the poet and playwright Johan Nordahl Brun (1745–1816). The authors discussed here have four qualities in common: they were all loyal servants of the Danish king; they had close connections to Norway; they were Lutherans; and finally, as a consequence of this last point, they shared an anti-Catholic attitude. With the exception of the Icelander Torfæus and the Danish Suhm, who both lived in Norway for some time, they were all born in Norway. I have argued elsewhere that Holberg was a loyal servant to the Danish Crown all his life.3 This goes for Holberg’s followers as well, for Bishop Johan Ernst Gunnerus (1718–1773) and for Professor Schøning, who was appointed to a position as the Royal Geheimearchivar in 1775. Brun, who was appointed Bishop of Bergen by the King in 1804, in all likelihood shared Holberg’s and his two mentors’ position regarding the King and the union between Denmark and Norway.

Tormod Torfæus’ Historia Rerum Norvegicarum

Torfæus was born on Iceland and was thus able to read the sagas and other manuscripts from the Icelandic Middle Ages, part of which he had himself discovered and brought to Denmark. In the following years, Torfæus moved to Norway as a royal official, bringing some of the valuable manuscripts with him. The writing of the history of the Norwegian past was delayed by a variety of official tasks after he was appointed as a royal historiographer in 1684. The project, a history of all the kings of Norway from the beginnings until the union with Denmark, including a concise geographical description of the country, was a vast one. Torfæus took more than thirty years to complete the huge historical work. His main historical opus, written in Latin, was finally published in 1711 in four luxurious and expensive volumes counting 3,500 pages. In his foreword, Torfæus dedicates the work to the present king, Frederik IV (r. 1699–1730), also thanking both the previous regents, Frederik III (r. 1648–1670) and Christian V (r. 1670–1699), and his editor Christian Reitzer for their interest and generous financial support.

Part of the explanation for the sheer voluminousness of the work was, according to Torfæus, that he wanted to present the Icelandic manuscripts which formed his unique sources. It was not at all his intention to select from among different versions of the historical events in order to present a coherent version of the history, readable for the common public. Instead, Torfæus took great care to present the documents he relied on. This makes Torfæus’ work invaluable as a historical source and presentation of the Icelandic sagas dealing with Norwegian history. On the other hand, the writer’s refusal to make selections, and to assume a critical attitude to the information given in the older text, is apt to try a latter-day reader’s patience. Torfæus’ choice of writing in Latin rather than the Danish language was due to the fact that his intended readers were primarily the King and his officials, as well as the learned European audience.4 His choice of language, however, meant that this important work was inaccessible to the general reading public. The first translation of the Latin text into Norwegian did not in fact appear in print until 2008 to 2014.5

The lengthy title of the work clearly states Torfæus’ project. He promises to supply a description of Norway, especially dealing with the heroes and kings before and after the foundation of the institution of kingdom (tam ante quam post Monarchiam institutam). For Torfæus, Håkon Hårfagre was the first Norwegian king. The Norwegian kingdom was meant to be absolute and hereditary from the start, just as the Danish-Norwegian kingdom of 1660 was. Following Torfæus’ preface, a salient feature in the initial parts of this work are the harsh conflicts – some of them instigated by disputes between Christians and non-Christians, others by ‘false’ kings who claimed their right to inherit the throne – that haunted the young Norwegian domain. The last part of the story, from King Sverre who, Torfæus believed, was ‘by blood’ a true heir to the kingdom, represented for him the best part of the history. The history ended as happily as possible, with the Danish queen Margrete (1353–1412) as the new monarch in Norway.6 In this way, Torfæus depicted a historical continuity, based on the institution of a Norwegian hereditary monarchy. The Danish Oldenburgian family, to which the royal dedicatees of Torfæus’ work all belonged, could then clearly be described as legitimate heirs to the Norwegian throne. The voluminous work was thus able to serve as a historical legitimation of the Danish institution of absolute monarchy from 1660.7

This historical reconstruction encountered some problems of its own. The fundamental challenge was of course that a depiction of Norway as an independent kingdom could serve as a reminder of the possibility that it might once more be a kingdom in its own right. By showing that a Danish queen was a legitimate heiress (‘by blood’) to the Norwegian throne, and that this union was meant to last ‘forever’, Torfæus emphasized that the possibility of a future independent Norwegian kingdom was clearly a misreading of history. Another dilemma, on a different scale, was how to deal with the harsh words that some of the Norwegian kings reportedly used against their Danish opponents. Torfæus was clearly intrigued by this dilemma, as is documented in his letters. For instance, was it justified to put the words of King Olav Tryggvason, in a battle against a Danish fleet, on record? On this occasion, Olav allegedly remarked: ‘I do not fear those cowards; they are no braver than deer. Never have Danes defeated Norwegians, nor will they do it today’.8 Following his instincts as a historiographer, Torfæus not only chose to include such potentially harmful statements in the printed version of his book; he also recounted some even more undiplomatic variants of what was said from other manuscripts. Torfæus justified this choice to his friends by making it clear that the King uttered these words on a specific historic occasion. The reproduced words were hence not at all to be understood as meaningful outside that context.9

The first part of Torfæus’ work describes the history of Norway from pre-historic times up to the founding of the institutionalized kingdom in great detail. His account of Norwegian history before the foundation of its kingdom, in the modern Norwegian translation comprising nearly seven hundred pages, makes use of ancient texts from the Bible and from Classical Greek literature. The biblical stories of the Great Deluge and of the building of the Tower of Babel, as well as the Classical Greek myths and histories, could, in Torfæus’ view, demonstrate the ancient lineage of the Norwegians. For the modern reader, most of his reading and use of ancient literature appears dubious to say the least. The reason why Torfæus chose to include these curious readings in a work dedicated to the Danish-Norwegian king in 1711 was probably, as Skovgaard-Petersen points out, that it was ‘first and foremost a message about Norway being part of the civilized world’.10 Especially, of course, the portrayals of the Classical ancestry of the Norwegians are to be read in the context of the various contemporaneous Swedish attempts to prove the historical uniqueness of the Swedes, such as by Olof Rudbeck the elder (1630–1702), on the basis of biblical and Classical texts.11

Torfæus’ account of the ancient Norwegian ‘giants’ is a telling example of the way in which he utilized these ancient texts. On the basis of the biblical stories of giant ‘Sons of God’ in Genesis 6, Torfæus tried to show how the early Norwegian landscape came to be populated with the offspring of these biblical giants. In this way, the giants were portrayed as closely related to Noah’s son Ham. Torfæus questions the biblical version in which the ancient giants were exterminated and argues for the historical possibility that the giants immigrated via Germany and Sweden.12 The vivid account of the lives of these early Norwegians, based on very weak historical foundations, covers three chapters (2–4) in the third part of the first volume.13 According to Torfæus, the giants were in themselves strong and independent persons living in the mountainous area of Jotunheimen and Dovre. By using classical and European literature in order to document the existence of these early Norwegians, Torfæus demonstrates that Norwegian history is closely related to both sacred and global history from the very outset.

Ludvig Holberg as a historical writer

The Norwegian-born historian and author Ludvig Holberg made his literary debut in 1711, the same year as Torfæus published his main historical work. In comparison to Torfæus’ four volumes, Holberg’s book was a minor work presenting an introduction to the most important European states (Introduction Til de fornemste Europæiske Rigers Historier). Just like Torfæus, Holberg ends his introduction to Norwegian history with the union with Denmark in 1387. He concludes by stating that Norway and Denmark have formed a union ever since, and that ‘the kings have always had their residence in Denmark’.14 Holberg refers readers who wish to learn more about Norwegian history after 1387 to his chapter on Denmark.15 The information about Norway provided in that chapter is quite scanty, though.

Holberg was a staunch adherent to the views regarding absolutism professed by Thomas Hobbes and the Swedish-German scholar Samuel Pufendorf. Holberg used parts of his Almindelig Kirke-Historie (‘General church history’) from 1738 to argue against the legitimacy of the political powers of the Catholic Church.16 Referring to natural law, he maintained that the secular sovereign, and not the Church, should have the last word within all sectors of society. Holberg was a consistent exponent of Erastianism, according to which the state or sovereign was to rule the Church. He concluded his Almindelig Kirke-Historie with an account of the Reformation. According to Holberg, the Reformation resulted in the formation of national churches which formed integral parts of society at large, governed by the regent. For Holberg, this was a beneficial solution, ending the harmful power struggles between Church and state. Consequently, when Holberg wrote about the Norwegian archbishop’s struggle against the King’s Reformation in 1537, he showed no signs of sympathy either for the archbishop or for the Norwegian case.17

The most important difference between these two historians was their choice of language. As an exponent of early Enlightenment ideals about the usefulness of knowledge, Holberg, albeit well versed in Latin, decided to publish most of his works in Danish. In ensuing works, Holberg argues vehemently against the use of Latin and German in texts meant to be read by Danish subjects. In the dedication to the King in his Introduction Til Naturens- Og Folke-Rettens Kundskab (‘Introduction to natural and public law’, 1716), Holberg states that the work, like all his other writings, is written in Danish, in order for it to be useful to all people who did not understand Latin or other foreign languages.18 For Holberg the German language, which had a prominent place in the Danish administration and was also the language of the court up to the 1770s, was clearly one of these ‘foreign’ languages. Holberg’s literary programme was to present the Danish public with readable, entertaining and instructive books in different academic disciplines as well as in a variety of genres of fiction, including his popular comedies. He stuck to this programme for most of his life, producing a vast historical and literary output.19

On several occasions, Holberg did compliment Torfæus on his outstanding work, as ‘one of the most impressive and wonderful histories ever to have seen the light of day’.20 Even if he seldom made such explicit references to Torfæus, Holberg obviously made use of Torfæus’ works in his own historical publications. Holberg supported Torfæus in his critical stance towards Saxo’s twelfth-century account of the early and even pre-historic Danish kings (found in Gesta Danorum). However, Holberg was clearly not convinced or even amused by Torfæus’ inventive reconstructions of the early pre-history of the Norwegian tribes, for instance the stories of the biblical giants in the mountains. As historians, Torfæus and Holberg embodied two different historical ideals: while Torfæus was first and foremost a collector, Holberg (just like Olof von Dahlin in Chapter 7) wanted to be a popular author, writing exciting ‘histories’ of different subjects that could be instructive as well as a good read. It goes without saying that neither one of them was a critical historian in the modern sense.

The scientific and critical pioneers in Danish-Norwegian historiography were all closely connected to Holberg, and most of them shared his positive attitude to the Danish language. Holberg’s friend and contemporary Hans Gram (1685–1748) was in many ways the first critical historian in Denmark. His work was continued by his pupil Jakob Langebek (1710–1775), who was also the founder in 1745 of the first Danish society for history and language, Det danske Selskab for Fædrelandets Historie og Sprog. Some years later, in 1751, two of Gram’s pupils – both friends of Langebek – left Copenhagen in order to move permanently to Trondheim in Norway. In time, both Gerhard Schøning and Peter Suhm were to establish themselves as historiographers in their own right.21

Schøning, Suhm and the Royal Norwegian Society for science and arts

Schøning had already published a geographical treatise of the Nordic countries, especially Norway, in 1751. Together with Suhm, who after his marriage to Karen Angell (1732–1788) in Trondheim was one of the wealthiest men in the country, Schøning started a small study group. Among other subjects, the members of the group taught themselves Icelandic and Old Norse in order to read historical documents. Their joint labour resulted in the publication in 1756 of a historical treatise of Danish and Norwegian kings, Forsøg til Forbedringer i den gamle Danske og Norske Historie (‘An attempt at improvements in the Old Danish and Norwegian historical accounts’). In the preface, Suhm explains that the five historical portraits of Danish and Norwegians kings supplied in the book were also meant to be read as exemplary stories, describing different types of kings: the first king is seen as ‘great’, the next is described as ‘good’, while the third is ‘depraved’. The fourth of the kings, the Norwegian Harald Hardråde, is said to be ‘a wise and combative king’.22 By adopting this outline, Suhm points out that the historical work could be read as ‘a mirror-for-princes’, a Speculum regale in the tradition of the well-known thirteenth-century Norwegian instruction book for princes.23 In his detailed portrait of Harald Hardråde, Schøning presents a nuanced description of the conflict between the King and the local leader Einer Tambeskielver, based on both Snorri and Torfæus.24 Schøning introduced his exemplary biography by describing King Harald as no less than a king ‘who without doubt has been one of the bravest, wisest, most experienced and tried, as well as most firm kings in our Northern realms, if not the greatest of them all’.25

In 1758 the Norwegian-born scholar Johan Ernst Gunnerus was appointed Bishop of Trondheim. Gunnerus had studied and taught theology and natural law at the universities in Halle, Jena and finally in Copenhagen, where he had chosen Holberg to be his tutor. Gunnerus met Schøning and Suhm in Trondheim and soon began to draft the organization of a scientific society. The society, which was given the name Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab (Royal Society of Science and Letters) some years later, was organized in 1760, modelled on the various scientific societies Gunnerus had known from his years in Germany.26 Gunnerus also became the editor of the journal of the society, Skrifter (‘Writings’), now the oldest Norwegian scientific journal in existence. At its inception, Skrifter was published in Danish. Although the journal was also translated into German in its early years, Gunnerus made it clear from the beginning that the working language of the society was to be Danish. By doing this – and thereby excluding the alternatives (Latin and German) – the society as a whole adhered to Holberg’s political line regarding the choice of language.

In 1765, after years of intensive cooperation in the study of Nordic history, Suhm and Schøning both returned to Denmark. Schøning went to the Royal Academy in Sorø as a professor of history and rhetoric, whereas Suhm continued his life as an independent intellectual and author in his huge library, firmly placed in his palace Pustervig in Copenhagen. Both of them continued to publish historical works about their respective home countries. Suhm managed to write a comprehensive history of Denmark, Historie af Danmark, in fourteen large volumes, some of them published posthumously. The Norwegian-born Schøning, for his part, published Norges Riiges Historie (‘History of the Norwegian realm’) in three volumes from 1771 to 1781. In the first volume, which leads up to the first king, Harald Hårfagre, Schøning writes about the pre-history of Norway, making connections with biblical and ancient history in a vein similar to Torfæus. Schøning tried to convince his readers from the start that the biblical Japheth, son of Noah, was the ancestor of the first Norwegians.27 The mountains of Armenia, where the ark of Noah settled, bore close similarities to the Norwegian mountains. As a patriotic Norwegian, Schøning suggests that this is probably the reason why some of the descendants of Japheth found their home in Norway. Schøning finds it probable that some of these first Norwegians were giants (Kiemper) living in this beautiful and healthy climate.28 Referring explicitly to Torfæus, he also argues for the existence of ‘trolls’ and tusser.29 Several of the arguments of Torfæus, both regarding the biblical ancestry and the existence of Norwegian giants, had been under discussion for several years when Schøning published his historical works. In this respect Schøning differs from Holberg, who barely mentions the suggested biblical pre-history and the giants in his works.

The learned theologian Erik Pontoppidan mentions Torfæus’ theory of the giants in the second part of his Norges Naturlige Historie (‘Natural history of Norway’), published in 1753 while Pontoppidan was still Bishop of Bergen. Pontoppidan takes great care to underline that his readers have to decide for themselves whether this theory of what he, in Danish, characterizes as Kiæmpe-Art is at all trustworthy. He goes on to describe some findings of bone material in Norway that could suggest that there really were giants in pre-historic times. He does, however, also leave this to his readers to decide.30 During his travels in Norway in the 1770s, Schøning took great care to document every archaeological finding of bones that might imply the existence of such giants or Kiemper.

Censorship and political ambiguity: Johann Nordahl Brun’s literary output

After the death of his father in 1766, Christian VII became the new absolute king of the twin kingdoms Denmark and Norway. Officially, he reigned until his death in 1808. Owing to his mental illness, however, Christian VII was in reality unable to serve as king for most of this time. From the beginning of 1770 until the coup on 14 January 1772, the King’s German-speaking personal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, was de facto ruler of the kingdoms.

In 1770 Struensee ordered Gunnerus, then still Bishop of Trondheim, to come to Copenhagen in order to assist with a plan for reforming the university.31 From his contacts in Copenhagen, Gunnerus knew that in the unstable political situation, the task could easily turn out to be dangerous for those involved. Gunnerus decided to ask the young secretary of the society, the Norwegian-born theologian Johan Nordahl Brun, to accompany him to Copenhagen as his secretary. Brun, however, was not fluent in German, the administrative language of the kingdoms, and he was therefore deemed not suitable for the position. Brun thus ended up in Copenhagen with no occupation. Following a challenge from the (likewise Norwegian-born) director of the Royal Theatre to write a tragedy in Danish, in a few months Brun wrote a play based on a classical subject. The result of this work, Zarine, in fact won the prize for the first tragedy originally written in Danish, and it was successfully performed at the Royal Theatre. The premiere was on 14 February 1772, exactly one month after the coup against Struensee. Today, Brun’s first tragedy is mostly known through a friendly parody called Kierlighed uden Strømper (‘Love without stockings’) written by Brun’s friend, the Norwegian-born Johan Herman Wessel (1742–1785).

Following his success as a dramatist, Brun was approached by the court. Persons close to the King, he later told his biographer, congratulated him and challenged him to write a new tragedy, this time with a subject chosen from the history of the nation (fra Fædrenelandets Historie).32 Brun did as he was told, or as he believed he was told. He began writing a new tragedy to follow up the success of the first. The subject he chose was the conflict between the Norwegian king Harald Hardråde and his influential warlord Einer Tambeskielver. Brun probably used the above-mentioned treatise by his teacher from Trondheim, Gerhard Schøning, as a basis for writing the play. The issue that started the conflict between the two main characters is no less than a dispute about whether Norway should go to war with Denmark. The King, according to Schøning one of the best, strongly desires a new war with Denmark. His more experienced warlord, on the other hand, argues vehemently against such a venture. Einer, who at one point mistakenly believes that the King has killed his son, rushes against Harald in order to kill him. He is thus close to committing the most heinous crime in an absolute monarchy, the crime of regicide. After he discovers his mistake, Einer is a mere shadow of his former self for the remainder of the drama, begging the King to punish him for this grave offence against the throne.

The tragedy Einer Tambeskielver was printed in 1772. The play was, however, heavily attacked by the press; and most importantly, it was not performed at the Royal Theatre. Instead, the authorities made Brun a chaplain in the area of his birth, Byneset in Norway. Back in his home country, Brun wondered what he had done wrong in following the call to write a play based on the history of ‘our nation’. He concluded that he still did not know whether the expression ‘our nation’, as employed by those who encouraged him, referred to Denmark or Norway. Anyway, the result was the same: the play was not performed.33

The political situation in Denmark after the coup against Struensee was complicated and tense. Immediately after the fall of the King’s German minister, Suhm published an open letter addressed to Christian VII, pleading that the Danish king should speak and write in Danish, as well as make this language of his home country, and not German, the common language of the administration of the kingdoms, as well as the military. Suhm’s letter in fact marked the final success of Holberg’s programme for language reform in Denmark. At the same time, the Danish authorities were informed that the Swedish king was considering invading Norwegian territory again (Gustav III of Sweden had successfully carried out his own coup in August 1772). In such a tense situation, it is understandable that the authorities would not have been keen to allow a tragedy where one of the heroic Norwegian kings argues for a war with Denmark.

Most of the Norwegian historians who have written about this incident tend to agree with Brun. In a tense political situation, the authorities deemed that the play might be interpreted as an argument for a more independent Norwegian state. On the other hand, it is possible that it was the theatre itself which decided against performing the play. While Einer Tambeskielver was slightly better than Zarine, it was still not a strikingly good text that would have been suitable for theatrical performance on its own.

Be that as it may, Brun, safely back in his homeland, wrote a strongly polemical article directed against the commentators who had criticized his second tragedy. For him, as well as for all his fellow Norwegians, there was no conflict, as the critics had implied, between Norwegian patriotism on the one hand and fidelity to the Danish king on the other. On the contrary, for Brun it was obvious that Norwegians could simultaneously love their own country and be faithful subjects of the Danish king.34

Some years later, in 1786, Brun made a strange comment in his preface to a collection of his own hymns: ‘I have never written a song to be sung in company [Selskabs Sang] that was meant for publication by the press.’35 The song that Brun obviously wrote with no intention of having it printed, if we are to believe him, was nevertheless published in the posthumous collection of Brun’s Mindre Digte (‘Minor poems’) from 1818, edited by his son Christian. The song is called ‘Norges Skaal’ (‘A toast to Norway’), and at the time of publication it was – and still is – a popular song at Norwegian parties and celebrations. The Danish authorities in Brun’s time, however, suspected that the song was a patriotic Norwegian hymn making unsound arguments for Norwegian independence from Denmark. Performing it was, therefore, forbidden.

Brun’s text was clearly inspired by Schøning’s description, following Torfæus, of the ancient Norwegian giants and their idyllic environment in the Norwegian mountains. The opening line proposed a toast to Norway, birthplace of giants (‘For Norge, Kjæmpers Fødeland’). The song continues by stating that the singers will ‘sweetly dream of freedom’. Brun then claims on behalf of all Norwegians that ‘we will wake someday, and break chains, bonds and coercion’. Given the tense political situation of the time, it is not difficult to understand why Danish authorities wanted to ban this song as rebellious. Whether the author Brun was actually arguing for Norwegian independence from Denmark in the song is still under discussion. What remains clear is that the text was interpreted in such a way, especially after Norway was declared an independent nation in 1814 in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. Brun’s son Christian, who published the text of the song in 1818, took care to inform readers in a note that it was written well before the French Revolution. This remark was, however, made in a collection of poems which Christian dedicated to the Swedish king Karl XIV Johan (1763–1844), who become the new king of Norway in 1818. In the dedication, Christian points out that his father had loved and been faithful both to his country and the King.

There are good reasons for believing the Bruns, father and son, when they claimed that the elder Brun had been loyal to the Danish king for most of his life – that is, up to 1814. Once back in Norway, Brun even wrote a sort of follow-up to the tragedy of Einar in 1790. This light ‘Singspiel’, Endres og Signes Brøllup, ended in a spectacular celebration of the union between Norway and Denmark.


The different accounts of Norwegian history published in the eighteenth century were all composed and written by authors who claimed to be, and who actually were, loyal servants of the Danish king. In fact, it could be argued that the historical works of both Torfæus and Holberg had a clear tendency: to legitimate and support the historical rights of the Danish king as an absolute and hereditary ruler, by birth a true heir to the throne of Norway. Holberg even supported these royal claims by arguments drawn from contemporary natural law. Paradoxically, the sheer richness of the material, made accessible to common readers by Holberg’s and Schøning’s historical publications in Danish, made these historical treatises into archives filled with stories and information about a once-upon-a-time independent kingdom with a glorious past and even an ancient pre-history.

None of Torfæus, Holberg or Schøning regarded the Roman Church in Norway as an integral part of the heroic and independent past of the nation. In fact, they do not seem to have been particularly interested in the pre-Reformation part of Norwegian history. Torfæus and Schøning did not even cover the Reformation in their respective histories of Norway. For them, the pre-Christian history of the early Vikings was important and a less problematic aspect of Norwegian history than the strong influence of the Church under Christian kings. They therefore downplayed the political role of the Church in their histories. In times of political conflict between the Church and the monarchy, for example between King Sverre and Pope Innocent III in the twelfth century, the historians sided with the regent. For Torfæus, the rule of King Sverre marked the beginning of the best part of Norwegian royal history. Holberg once more resorted to natural law to support the King against the political claims of the Church.

Johan Nordahl Brun, who used some of the historical material from Torfæus and Schøning as inspiration when writing a tragedy based on Norwegian history as well as a popular nationalist ode, composed for celebrations with fellow Norwegians, was as loyal to the Danish king as Holberg and Schøning. Even though it was not by any means Brun’s intention, both the play and the song were clearly interpreted as a call for Norwegian independence both by Danish authorities and by the Norwegian public. Interestingly enough, in a historical situation in which the King was weak and the relationship with other countries – especially the rival kingdom of Sweden – was tense, some of the historic depictions of the early Norwegian kings and of Norway’s pre-history began to appear ambivalent. Suddenly the curious stories of Torfæus and Schøning regarding the Norwegian giants, linking the Norwegians to biblical and Classical forebears, could sound like a call for national independence. Likewise, the narrative of a Norwegian king and hero who wanted to go to war with Denmark started to sound suspicious to the authorities.

A reason why these old narratives suddenly began to take on new meanings is found in their genre and the language in which they were published. Torfæus’ massive tomes were written in Latin, as already mentioned, inaccessible to most people in Denmark–Norway. Holberg’s and Schøning’s versions of the early history were much more accessible to the general reading public that now emerged. However, when Brun made use of Schøning’s description of the life of the Norwegian king Harald Hardråde in a tragedy which was going to be performed in public, something new happened. There is a vast difference between reading a historical narrative on one’s own and witnessing a theatre performance in which actors speak about a possible war between Norway and Denmark. The same could be said about the difference between the private reading of a poem and collective, and celebratory, singing. When Norwegians started to sing, not only read, about Norwegian giants and yearning for freedom, the words became more emotional and more persuasive. And, of course, the sound of a collective of Norwegians singing together appeared much more menacing to the Danish authorities.

Later Norwegian historians were to dwell on the role played by the Catholic Church in the struggle against the Reformation of the Danish king; as we have seen, this was not a topic that appealed either to the eighteenth-century historians mentioned in this chapter or to the writer Brun. One of the consequences of the Norwegian Reformation, imposed from above and from abroad, was the end of the Norwegian Assembly of Estates. Holberg’s own staunch anti-Catholicism, as well as the anti-Catholic attitude of his pietistic contemporary Erik Pontoppidan, probably made it impossible to describe the cult of the eternal king of Norway, St Olav – as well as the Norwegian archbishop’s struggle against the Danish Lutheran Reformation – in a favourable light that might be utilized in support of Norwegian independence. This state of things was going to change significantly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, in the years after the Norwegian independence from Denmark. That, however, is another story.

1 Ståle Dyrvik, Truede tvillingriker: 1648–1720. Danmark-Norge 1380–1814, III (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1998), pp. 19–32. For Holberg’s argument, see Ludvig Holberg, Dannemarks Riges Historie: Tomus 3 (Copenhagen, 1735), p. 15. It is of course not coincidental that Holberg, who had referred to Hobbes’ argumentation for political absolutism in his own introduction to natural law from 1716, made use of the Hobbesian terms ‘sovereign’ and ‘sovereignty’ in his history of Denmark.
2 See Karen Skovgaard-Petersen, ‘“Nutildags er vores forhold til Norge venligt”: om Norges plads i 1600-tallets officielle historieskrivning’, Teologisk Tidsskrift, 7 (2018), 188–97 (196–7).
3 For example in Rolv Nøtvik Jakobsen, ‘General church history’, in Knud Haakonssen and Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen (eds), Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754): Learning and Literature in the Early Nordic Enlightenment (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 182–95, and the same author’s ‘Politikkmakeren: Dannelsen av det profesjonelle byråkrati og Holbergs Den Politiske Kandestøber’, in Knut Ove Eliassen, Helge Jordheim and Tue Andersen Nexø (eds), Staten: Fra utopi til bureaukrati, Europæisk litteratur 1500–1800, II (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2015), pp. 157–78.
4 Some of the Latin terms Torfæus made use of in order to make the context understandable were in themselves confusing. The best example is his translations of ‘Vikings’ as pirata. As this was written during a period later named ‘the Golden Age of Piracy’ and especially after the so-called Turkish pirate raid on Iceland in 1627, the concept of ‘pirates’ had more ambiguous connotations than ‘Vikings’. For Torfæus, the term ‘giants’ (gigantes) covered both what the sagas named troll, tusser and jotner.
5 Tormod Torfæus, Norges historie, ed. Torgrim Titlestad, 5 vols (Bergen: Eide förlag, 2008–2011), I (2008).
6 Torfæus, Norges historie, p. 73.
7 See Karen Skovgaard-Petersen, ‘The first post-medieval history of Norway in Latin: the Historia Rerum Norvegicarum (Copenhagen 1711) by Tormod Torfæus’, in E. Kessler and H. C. Kuhn (eds), Germania latina – Latinitas teutonica: Politik, Wissenschaft, humanistische Kultur vom späten Mittelalter bis in unsere Zeit, II, 1st edn (Paderborn: Fink, 2008), pp. 707–20 for convincing arguments for the official use of Torfæus’ work.
8 ‘Non timeo timidos illos; neque enim ii damis animosiores sunt: nunquam Dani Norvegos vicerunt, neque hodie vincent’; Skovgaard-Petersen, ‘The first’, pp. 715, n. 16, referring to Tormod Torfæus, Historia Rerum Norvegicarum, 4 vols (Copenhagen, 1711), II, p. 445.
9 Skovgaard-Petersen, ‘The first’, pp. 715, n. 17.
10 Skovgaard-Petersen, ‘The first’, p. 712.
11 Carl S. Petersen writes about Danish jealousy (Misundelse) and desire for resources against the weak arguments of Swedish ancient history (‘som Kampmidler mod Sveriges kun svagt underbyggede Oldhistorie’) in his Illustreret dansk litteraturhistorie, I (Copenhagen, 1929), p. 800.
12 Torfæus, Norges historie, p. 250.
13 Torfæus, Norges historie, pp. 244–55.
14 ‘Siden den Tid haver Dannemarck og Norge væred foreenede, og Kongerne stedse residered udi Dannemarck’; Ludvig Holberg, Introduction Til de fornemste Europæiske Rigers Historier (Copenhagen, 1711), p. 36.
15 ‘Om dem tales kortelig udi den Danske Historie, hvorhen jeg vil den gunstige Læser henviise’; Holberg, Introduction Til de fornemste Europæiske Rigers Historier.
16 Jakobsen, ‘General church history’, pp. 182–95.
17 ‘Udi Norge derimod blev Reformationens Fremgang noget hindret af Erke-Bisp Oluf Lunge, som var Hovet for de Norske, og havde stiftet stort Oprør udi samme Rige, som tilforn er omtalt’; Ludvig Holberg, Dannemarks Riges Historie. Tomus 2 (Copenhagen, 1733), pp. 349–59.
18 ‘saa vel som mine andre Skrifter, jeg har skrevet paa Dansk, at alle, besynderlig de, som ikke forstaa Latin, eller andre fremmede Sprog, kunne have nytte deraf’; Ludvig Holberg, Introduction Til Naturens- Og Folke-Rettens Kundskab (Copenhagen, 1716), Dedication, A3.
19 Updated introductions to Holberg’s vast literary output are given in the anthology edited by Haakonssen and Olden-Jørgensen, Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754). For Holberg’s historical works, see also the Norwegian anthology by Jørgen Magnus Sejersted and Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen (eds), Historikeren Ludvig Holberg (Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press, 2014).
20 Ludvig Holberg, Epistler 2, ed. Laurids Kristian Fahl and Peter Zeeberg (Copenhagen, DSL/Aarhus universitetsforlag, 2017), p. 294. Holberg describes the work as ‘en af de anseligste og prægtigste historier som nogen tid er kommet for lyset, og at det med al rette fortjener at hedde et 30 års værk’.
21 For a detailed introduction to different forms of historical writings in Norway from this period, see Anne Eriksen, Livets læremester: Historiske kunnskapstradisjoner i Norge 1650–1840 (Oslo: Pax, 2020).
22 Peter Suhm and Gerhard Schøning, Forsøg til Forbedringer i den gamle Danske og Norske Historie (Copenhagen, 1756), p. 157.
23 Rolv Nøtvik Jakobsen, ‘The Trondheim connection: Johan Nordahl Bruns to skodespel frå 1772 og den kulturelle utvekslinga mellom den trønderske stiftsstaden og Kongens by i det lange 1700-talet’, in Anne Fastrup, Gunnar Foss and Rolv Nøtvik Jakobsen (eds), Opplysninger: Festskrift til Knut Ove Eliassen på 60-årsdagen 26. oktober 2019 (Oslo: Novus, 2019), pp. 131–44.
24 Suhm and Schøning, Forsøg til Forbedringer, pp. 243–409.
25 ‘uden al Tvil har været en af de tapperste, klogeste, mest bereiste og forsøgte, samt myndigste Konger i vor Norden, om ei heri den ypperste blant dem’; Suhm and Schøning, Forsøg til Forbedringer, pp. 244–5.
26 See Rolv Nøtvik Jakobsen, Gunnerus og nordisk vitskapshistorie (Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press, 2015), pp. 244–5.
28 Schøning, Norges Riiges Historie, pp. 23–5.
29 Schøning, Norges Riiges Historie, p. 102.
30 Erich Pontoppidan, Norges Naturlige Historie, Anden Deel (Copenhagen, 1753), pp. 386–8.
31 See John Peter Collett, ‘Johan Ernst Gunnerus as a university reformer of the Enlightenment’, in Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskabs Skrifter (2011), pp. 23–62.
32 Jens Zetlitz, ‘Johan Nordahl Brun, Biskop over Bergens Stift’, in G. L. Lahde (ed.), Portrætter med Biographier af Danske, Norske og Holsteenere, Tredje Hefte (Copenhagen, 1805), p. 21.
33 Zetlitz, ‘Johan Nordahl Brun’, p. 20.
34 The polemical text was aptly named ‘Til Nordmænd om Troeskab mod Kongen og Kierlighed til Fædrelandet i Anledning af Einer Tambeskielver’ (‘To Norwegians about Fidelity to the King and Love for one’s Native Land in Connection with Einer Tambeskielver’, 1773). See Rolv Nøtvik Jakobsen, ‘Johan Nordahl Bruns polemikk’, in Trond Berg Eriksen and Egil Børre Johnsen (eds), Norsk litteraturhistorie: Sakprosa fra 1750 til 1995, I: 1750–1920 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1998), pp. 69–71.
35 Johan Nordahl Brun, Evangeliske Sange (Bergen, 1786), ‘Forerindring’ (‘Preface’).


Brun, Johan Nordahl, Evangeliske Sange (Bergen, 1786).

Collett, John Peter, ‘Johan Ernst Gunnerus as a university reformer of the Enlightenment’, in Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskabs Skrifter (2011), pp. 23–62.

Dyrvik, Ståle, Truede tvillingriker: 1648–1720. Danmark-Norge 1380–1814, III (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1998).

Eriksen, Anne, Livets læremester: Historiske kunnskapstradisjoner i Norge 1650–1840 (Oslo: Pax, 2020).

———, Topografenes verden (Oslo: Pax, 2007).

Holberg, Ludvig, Dannemarks Riges Historie. Tomus 2 (Copenhagen, 1733).

———, Dannemarks Riges Historie. Tomus 3 (Copenhagen, 1735).

———, Epistler 2, ed. Laurids Kristian Fahl and Peter Zeeberg (Copenhagen: DSL/Aarhus universitetsforlag, 2017).

———, Introduction Til de fornemste Europæiske Rigers Historier (Copenhagen, 1711).

———, Introduction Til Naturens- Og Folke-Rettens Kundskab (Copenhagen, 1716).

Jakobsen, Rolv Nøtvik, ‘General church history’, in Knud Haakonssen and Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen (eds), Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754): Learning and Literature in the Early Nordic Enlightenment (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 182–95.

———, Gunnerus og nordisk vitskapshistorie (Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press, 2015).

———, ‘Johan Nordahl Bruns polemikk’, in Trond Berg Eriksen and Egil Børre Johnsen (eds), Norsk litteraturhistorie: Sakprosa fra 1750 til 1995, I: 1750–1920 (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1998), pp. 69–71.

———, ‘Politikkmakeren: Dannelsen av det profesjonelle byråkrati og Holbergs Den Politiske Kandestøber’, in Knut Ove Eliassen, Helge Jordheim and Tue Andersen Nexø (eds), Staten: Fra utopi til bureaukrati, Europæisk litteratur 1500–1800, II (Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2015), pp. 157–78.

———, ‘The Trondheim connection: Johan Nordahl Bruns to skodespel frå 1772 og den kulturelle utvekslinga mellom den trønderske stiftsstaden og Kongens by i det lange 1700-talet’, in Anne Fastrup, Gunnar Foss and Rolv Nøtvik Jakobsen (eds), Opplysninger: Festskrift til Knut Ove Eliassen på 60-årsdagen 26. oktober 2019 (Oslo: Novus, 2019), pp. 131–44.

Petersen, Carl S., Illustreret dansk litteraturhistorie, I (Copenhagen, 1929).

Pontoppidan, Erich [Erik], Norges Naturlige Historie, anden Deel (Copenhagen, 1753).

Schøning, Gerhard, Norges Riiges Historie, Første Deel, indeholdende Riigets ældste Historie fra dets Begyndelse til Harald Haarfagers Tiide (Sorø, 1771).

Sejersted, Jørgen Magnus and Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen (eds), Historikeren Ludvig Holberg (Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press, 2014).

Skovgaard-Petersen, Karen, ‘The first post-medieval history of Norway in Latin: the Historia Rerum Norvegicarum (Copenhagen 1711) by Tormod Torfæus’, in E. Kessler and H. C. Kuhn (eds), Germania latina – Latinitas teutonica: Politik, Wissenschaft, humanistische Kultur vom späten Mittelalter bis in unsere Zeit, II, 1st edn (Paderborn: Fink, 2008), pp. 707–20.

———, ‘ “Nutildags er vores forhold til Norge venligt”: om Norges plads i 1600-tallets officielle historieskrivning’, Teologisk Tidsskrift, 7 (2018), 188–97.

Suhm, Peter and Gerhard Schøning, Forsøg til Forbedringer i den gamle Danske og Norske Historie (Copenhagen, 1756).

Torfæus, Tormod, Historia Rerum Norvegicarum, 2 vols (Copenhagen, 1711).

———, Norges historie, ed. Torgrim Titlestad, 5 vols (Bergen: Eide förlag, 2008–2011), I (2008).

Zetlitz, Jens, ‘Johan Nordahl Brun, Biskop over Bergens Stift’, in G. L. Lahde (ed), Portrætter med Biographier af Danske, Norske og Holsteenere, Tredje Hefte (Copenhagen, 1805).

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