For many people, history revolves around its kings and princes. This fascination seems to be a constant in recorded history, and it has not released its grip on human imagination even in our modern times, as evidenced by the many biographies, movies and of course gossip magazines in which kings have their premier seats. As a historian who works on medieval kings who were later claimed to be saints, I am frequently exposed to the often obsessive interest some people – both lay and learned – cultivate for royalty of ages past.
In recent years, this fascination has now very often moved its focus to the bones of these royal dead. This in itself is not new, as royal tombs and graves have been the subject of great interest throughout recorded history. For medievalists, one of the most famous cases of such interest is King Arthur, whose bones were said to have been found at Glastonbury Abbey in 1198 together with those of Queen Guinevere, and whose remnants were re-interred in 1278 by Edward I. Here, the earthly remains of the legendary king served as evidence for the king actually being dead and therefore not a rallying-point for the Welsh. The question of Arthur’s burial place is a recurring issue for certain amateur historians and enthusiasts, and it was raised again as late as May 2016.
It is easy to understand why the bones of kings hold such a grip on popular imagination. They are tangible vestiges of the past, and reminders that the things you read about in books have a connection to the real, physical world. This is probably part of the reason why the case of the Greyfriars Skeleton, discovered under a car-park in Leicester in September 2012, gained such massive attention. When the skeleton was identified as King Richard III in February 2013, media erupted with enthusiasm and interest, and it the fascination which had long been in place among many members of the global audience became immensely visible. The Greyfriars Skeleton was something of a milestone in the popular history of royal bones, as it proved to the world that lost historical kings could in fact be found. In the years following, we have seen people urging for a search for both King Alfred and Harold Godwinsson.
Miniature of the statue (1973) of Olaf Haraldsson by Dyre Vaa, Stiklestad Centre
In my native Norway, the interest in dead kings is also significant. Only about eight months after the Greyfriars press conference, a Norwegian made the claim that King Magnus VI Lagabøte (Law-mender), who died in 1280, was buried in the wall of Bergen Cathedral. Following a georadar examination of the walls, objects were located inside it. But the case will not be pursued until the cathedral is due for restoration in 2018.
The Norwegian king who has gained the most attention throughout history, and who continues to do so today, is Olaf Haraldsson, the Viking-turned-Christian who died at Stiklestad north of Trondheim in 1030 in an attempt to regain the Norwegian throne. Olaf was proclaimed to be a saint in 1031 by Bishop Grimkell, and in the twelfth century Olaf’s body was moved to the new cathedral in Trondheim which was begun by Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson.
The death of Olaf Haraldsson
Here from the old exhibition at Stiklestad Centre
Olaf Haraldsson is an important part of the Norwegian imagination, and part of this imagination has been concerned with the bones of the saint-king. The fascination with Olaf’s bones re-emerged in July 2016, when Bodvar Schjelderup – a professor emeritus of architecture – made the national press with the claim that Olaf Haraldsson did not rest somewhere in Nidaros Cathedral, but in the castle Steinvikholm further north in the Trondheim fjord. The castle was built in 1532 by Archbishop Olaf Engelbrektsson, who was the last of the Catholic archbishops of Norway. The background for Schjelderup’s claim is that the shrine of Olaf Haraldsson was indeed removed to Steinvikholm when the archbishop fled Trondheim during the Reformation. However, as professor of medieval history Steinar Imsen and archaeologist Øystein Ekroll both have pointed out, there are contemporary sources from the mid-sixteenth century saying that the reliquary of the saint-king was brought back to Nidaros Cathedral in 1564, and all historical evidence points to the conclusion that Olaf is still buried somewhere in the cathedral.
Photo by Frode Inge Helland
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Around mid-August 2016, just a few days ago, the matter of Olaf’s burial site was again raised, and again it made the national press. This time, the claim was put forth by Joralf Gjerstad, a healer from the town Verdal north of Trondheim. Gjerstad has gained national attention for his alleged ability to heal, and in an article in one of the leading Norwegian newspapers he claimed to have had a vision which showed that the royal saint was not buried in Trondheim but rather at Stiklestad, the place of his death in 1030. According to the vision, the king was taken away after the battle and buried in a small hill.
This ongoing discussion concerning the remains of Olaf Haraldsson is testament to the importance of studying medieval history, because the past will always remain relevant and for that reason we will always need experts who can sift the nonsense from the truth. Unfortunately, however, this discussion concerning Olaf Haraldsson’s bones also reveals the almost liminal place which the expert inhabits on the national stage, and this is a matter of great concern.
In the two cases reported here, the news outlets have given precedence to the claims of amateurs and put them on the same level as experts. This is a trend which is quite common in today’s media world, and it perpetuates the notion that experts and non-experts are to be listened to equally. Such a notion is false, and it can be very damaging in certain cases. As for the discussion about Olaf Haraldsson’s bones, there is not much immediate damage to be made. However, it helps solidifying a very dangerous trend, and as such it should not be taken lightly.
There are no good reasons to pay attention to the claims put forth by either Schjelderup or Gjerstad – or for that matter Gunnar Rosenlund who made claims about Magnus VI. While experts like Steinar Imsen and Øystein Ekroll have dedicated much of their professional lives to gain a thorough understanding of the Norwegian Middle Ages, the counter-claims are made by men driven by ideas well beyond the empirical and well beyond historical science. For instance, Gunnar Rosenlund consulted a psychic in order to find the tomb of King Magnus. Bodvar Schjelderup is a pyramid enthusiast who imagines that the bones in the shrine taken back to Nidaros Cathedral had been swapped, and that Olaf’s actual bones still reside in the castle. Furthermore, his claim that Olaf Haraldsson resides at Steinvikholm is ultimately founded on a numerical game with the angles of the Kheops pyramide, as he himself stated in an interview in Trondheim's student magazine Under Dusken in 1997. Joralf Gjerstad has formulated a vision which is contrary to every single medieval source dealing with the death of Olaf (and there are many of them). That Gjerstad had a vision is probably a historical fact, many people experience visions in the same way that people dream. But just like a dream is a reality only within the mind of the dreamer, so there is no reason to think that the mental images in Gjerstad’s head should have any consequence for the physical world.
Talking about Gjerstad’s claim, a relative of mine then said that it was only to dig up the area. And it is true, the easiest way to deal with these claims is to follow the logic of them to the bitter end and actually perform the searches. But such a solution is itself deeply problematic. First of all, if we are to dig up a place because a local healer has had a vision that goes contrary to professional consensus, we are letting amateurs dictate the priorities of historical research. I don’t think I speak too harshly when I say that that is intolerable. Secondly, to perform searches in order to debunk the fantasies and imaginings of amateurs will cost money, time and energy that could be much better spent following the priorities of experts who know which excavations are most needed. Thirdly, if the whims of amateurs are to be heeded in this way, amateurs are not only dictating the priorities of historical research but also of the national attention. In a time when it has become increasingly challenging for non-experts to filter out the facts from the dubious, the voices of experts should not be obscured by such searches – because even though experts are allowed to speak against such claims, it is the amateur’s claims which will always be the loudest because it is that claim which dictates the search.
For a medievalist, there will always be struggles against poorly founded notions and wild claims. The on-going discussion about the bones of Olaf Haraldsson is a good reminder of to what lengths these claims can go.