And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 31. juli 2022

The historian's balancing act


As mentioned in two previous blogposts, for some time this month I have been preoccupied with preparations for a talk in my home village, in which I provided some facts and some interpretations about its now-lost medieval church. This is not the first talk I have given on this subject, and it is unlikely to be the last. As always happens when I give a presentation to an audience of non-historians – and perhaps especially when I do so in my home village – I am reminded of one of the many under-communicated aspects of being a historian, namely the balancing act that goes into disseminating knowledge to a non-expert audience. This balancing act is something that most experts in most fields either know well or come across sooner or later in their careers, and what I put down in this short blogpost is not new. However, because this balancing act is such a fixture in the work of historians, I have put down a reflection of my own, prompted by an encounter the day before I gave the presentation.         

When I talk about the historian’s balancing act, what I mean is simply this: Since non-experts have some more or less well-defined ideas about history, they are equipped with expectations and preconceptions that influence how they react to the words of experts. How these expectations and preconceptions are put together, and how they influence the non-expert in their encounter with the expert depend entirely on the personality of the individual. Because the result of these pre-existing conditions – for want of a better word – differs so widely from person to person, I do not phrase this description in a derogatory way. Rather, it is simply unavoidable that on any given subject where there exists some knowledge or some information available to the public, there is also bound to be preconceptions. The same goes for any other field, and I myself have plenty of preconceptions about fields beyond my own expertise. These preconceptions, however, are something we as experts communicating to non-experts need to take into account when interacting with our audience, and this is where the balancing act comes in.      

Since history is one of those fields that have a wide mass appeal, it is easy enough to get people interested in topics from that field. However, since history is also generally poorly understood as a scientific discipline, a lot of non-experts tend to be convinced that they themselves can know as much, perhaps even more, than experts. Typically, this belief is founded on a lack of understanding about how we discern between knowledge and information, or how we distinguish between fact and hypothesis. Moreover, there is a widely held idea that when there are gaps in our knowledge, any odd theory or explanation can be offered, as it has not been disproved, and cannot be disproved. The idea that there are degrees of certainty or probability is not nearly as accepted as it should be. Finally, history is often seen as a knowledge about dates and events rather than the interpretation of narrative and sources.      

When describing the non-experts as I do here, I must again emphasise that this is not done out of disrespect or arrogance. My description here is simply based on how non-experts frequently approach the subject of history, and this approach is aided by a misconception of how history is done by experts, a misconception fed by popular culture, alternative culture and lazy journalism.

It should be noted, of course, that a lot of non-experts have a very intelligent and knowledgeable approach to history, and a lot of them do provide interesting insights, interpretations and input that can help the expert to move the research front – to use a Norwegian expression – a few inches further, which is exactly the kind of progress history makes as a discipline. Others are more entrenched in error, and display a kind of pride mixed with scepticism towards experts – a notion currently highly favoured by a number of populist individuals and outlets and thus very wide-reaching – which makes it very difficult, often impossible, to veer them away from their wrong ideas.      

In the course of my public outreach – which, granted, is not extensive – I have met a wide variety of such non-experts, and this is where the balancing act becomes important. In some cases, people have been wrong but in an understandable way, and it can then be very arrogant to simply dismiss their ideas. For instance, a few years ago after I had given a presentation about the lost medieval village church, an elderly neighbour suggested I might find additional information in the papal archives. It is not impossible that this might be the case, but it is highly unlikely. However, as I did not want to simply dismiss the idea but rather nourish his enthusiasm about the possibility of future discoveries – because that enthusiasm appeared to mean a lot to him – I suggested instead that there might be something in Danish archives instead. Personally, I do not believe there is a great chance of such discoveries, but the possibility is absolutely there, since Norway was in a union with Denmark from 1389 to 1521, and later as a puppet state belonging to the Danish king from 1537 to 1660. During the Reformation of Denmark-Norway in 1536-37, the archives and papers of Norwegian churches were confiscated and recycled for their parchment in the Danish-Norwegian administration, meaning that information about Norwegian parish churches could conceivably be found in Danish archives. My point here, however, was to steer a non-expert away from an unrealistic expectation towards a more realistic one, because I think it is important to meet an intelligent suggestion with decency and respect, and also to nourish enthusiasm for the discipline.           

In other cases, however, expertise is met with a kind of strange defiance which can come from a variety of sources, but very often a dislike of experts that itself might have different points of origin, sometimes including an inferiority complex. The day before my presentation I was met with one type of this defiance – and I have not yet been able to assess which type – when one of my fellow villagers walked up to me and declared that he would be attending my talk, and that he had read up on the subject. This declaration was given in a strange kind of defiance which immediately ruffled my feathers, and I suspect that I did not manage to maintain my balancing act as well as I should have. But I was reminded in the aftermath of this very undramatic event that such individuals make the historian’s balancing act very difficult to achieve. The temptation to refer to my own expertise was overwhelming, using my education and degree to browbeat and ridicule an attempt at domineering behaviour. I rarely consider such a response to be useful, however, even though it sometimes has its function. In most cases, such a response only cements the defiance of the non-expert and confirms their deeply-rooted conviction that experts are cliquey and deaf to suggestions from outside their ivory tower – a conviction that, to be fair, is not always incorrect, depending on the expert in question. (And sometimes such browbeating is necessary, such as when someone abuses history for the furtherance of their own harmful views and the spreading of hate.)         

I am not entirely sure how my response was received, and how it should be characterised. Looking back, I suspect it was a form of poorly suppressed irritation bordering on the discourteous, but I am also sure it could have been much worse. I do believe I failed the balancing act to some extent, but the incident did remind me how important it is to try to achieve such a balance between receptive and instructive, and how the balance has to be calibrated afresh for every new situation, and every new individual. As I hope to have many years of public outreach ahead of me, I hope this incident will enable me to improve my balancing skills. 

fredag 29. juli 2022

Saint Olaf in Tanum Church


Today is the feast of Saint Olaf, one of the most important saints' feasts in medieval Norway, and indeed in medieval Scandinavia. Killed at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030 and declared a saint the next year, King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway became widely venerated from Iceland to the Baltics, and depictions of him are found in numerous medieval churches. For this year's feast, I bring you this short post featuring one such depiction of Saint Olaf, which is kept at the Oslo Museum of Cultural History. Originally from Tanum Church in Vestfold - a Romanesque stone church from the first half of the twelfth century - this thirteenth-century wooden statue represents the saint-king is shown enthroned with gesturing hands while threading underfoot a man who appears to be in chainmail. The robes, the cape and the crown - perhaps even the beard - all serve to emphasise the royalty of the saint. The absence of his attribute, the axe by which he was wounded in battle, is notable, but for this I have no explanation at present.

Perhaps the most notable feature is the figure lying below the saint's feet. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this figure entered into the Saint Olaf iconography in the thirteenth century, and took different forms throughout the Middle Ages. In this case, we might interpret the figure as a soldier on account of the chainmail, perhaps representing his vanquished enemies, or indeed the pagans he fought against during his reign. Other interpretations are also possible. Most importantly, however, it appears that the meaning of this figure depends very much on how the figure is depicted. Several other thirteenth-century exemplars show a man, while others - some already in the thirteenth century as well - depict a dragon, sometimes with the head of a man and sometimes not. The meaning of this iconography has plagued medievalists for generations, and so far I believe the most satisfying conclusion is that there is no one single interpretation, but several possibilities depending on the figure, the time, and the place of its making.  

søndag 24. juli 2022

Churches of Gloppen in Western Norway, part 3 - the medieval church of Hyen


Sunday, July 24, I gave a presentation about the now-lost medieval church of my native village of Hyen in the Western Norwegian fjords, located in the hamlet of Hope. The presentation followed an outdoor church service held at the spot where that church most likely stood in the Middle Ages. This was not the first time a church service had been held in this location since the Middle Ages – there was a similar service in 1995 – but this time the service included the baptism of three children, a sacrament that has not been performed within the environ of the lost church for the better part of five centuries. Despite the rain, it was a momentous and joyous occasion.        

As I am preparing a short piece about the now-lost medieval church in the local parish magazine, I have put together a brief outline of what we know about this church, and what we can surmise from context. 

Raised in 1950, this stone commemorates the lost medieval church of Hyen. The work was initiated by the parish council, and the stone was found a few kilometers further up in the valley from where the church stood

The medieval church of Hyen         

The medieval church of Hyen first emerges in the sources in 1308, in a letter from the bishop of Bergen to the priests of the area. At this time, the Norwegian church organisation was immensely powerful, as it held much land and had a largely close – if occasionally turbulent – relationship with secular power. Several bishops were heavily engaged in the strengthening of ecclesiastical administration and jurisprudence, and one such bishop was Arne Sigurdsson, who became bishop of Bergen in 1295, an office he held until his death in 1314. Arne had studied law in Orléans and was part of a concerted effort to ensure the right living among priests, and that the church received its financial dues.    

The letter from 1308 was written at Gimmestad, a hamlet in the neighbouring fjord of Hyen, where there was a parish church in the Middle Ages (as there still is). Bishop Arne resided here during his visitation in the area, and he wrote this letter to the five priests of the area; Sigvat at Vereide, Bård at Re, Steinar at Austrheim, Kolbein at Gimmestad, and Hallstein in Hyen. Four of these priests were commanded to leave their concubines within five days of receiving the letter, or they would be suspended. Sigvat was suspended effective immediately – perhaps because his church, Vereide, was the richest of the churches in the area, and his status was therefore higher than the others. The practice of priestly concubinage was not uncommon in Latin Christendom, it was not a phenomenon unique to Norway, and it was something which eager reformers such as Bishop Arne wanted to eradicate from the church.

 We do not know exactly what happened after Bishop Arne had issued his letter, but we do encounter four of these priests in another letter from 1310, which suggests that they did either divorce their concubines or somehow managed to avoid suspension by other means. (The simplest explanation is that they separated from the concubines, but we should not exclude other possibilities.) In any case, the letter from 1310 is a response to a supplication by three of the priests of the area which is now Gloppen municipality. The supplication informed the bishop that Sigvat of Vereide had died, and the priests of Gimmestad, Eid, and Hyen asked the bishop to divide the income of Vereide church in such a way as to strengthen the situation for the other parish churches, since they would not have sufficient income to welcome the bishop on his next visitation otherwise. In his response, Bishop Arne rearranged some of the divisions of the parishes and church income, and the priest of Hyen was granted a twelve ‘cophinos’ or hampers – in Norwegian ‘laup’ – from the income of Vereide. That the priest in Hyen was granted this amount of income was because Hyen was the poorest of the parishes, and if the parish of Hyen was subsumed under the parish of Vereide – which it was after the Reformation – the people of Hyen would have a long and difficult road to travel to church. 

The medieval church was most likely located on this crag, where it could be seen by churchgoers coming up the valley by boat across the lake, or coming down the valley along the road that connected the various hamlets of the valley. The location where the churchgoers were believed to go ashore is called 'Kirkjevikja', the church bay. Remnants of a stone dock can be seen, although it is unclear whether this dates to medieval times.

From the supplication of 1310 we catch a somewhat better glimpse of the situation of Hyen parish. The village of Hyen comprises two long valleys and a fjord, and its people still live in far-flung hamlets within a wide circumference. While there were several farms in the hamlets of Hyen, it has nonetheless always had a much more difficult terrain for agriculture than what we find in the neighbouring fjord, and the income from tithes and other dues was not large.

From this starting point, we might also surmise a few other points about the church building. Due to the limited means of the parish, it is likely that it was a wooden church, a so-called stave church. Typically when we talk about stave churches, we think of some of the masterful buildings such as Borgund, Urnes, Hopperstad or Lom. The term ‘stave church’, however, pertains to the building technique and can also include much more humble churches, small, dark, and with room for standing only. It is likely that the church in Hyen was one of these smaller stave churches. Moreover, it is likely that the church was built in the course of the twelfth century, as this was a period when the Norwegian church organisation expanded its infrastructure and erected churches throughout the country. It was in this period that the church of Vereide was built, a church whose stone structure point to the greater income of the priest, and the importance of its location.         

Since the parish of Hyen was poor, we are also left wondering about the number of books kept in the church. Most parish churches were expected to keep a psalter, a missal, and a breviary for performing the basic liturgical services in the course of the church year. It is also possible that the church kept a volume containing the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles – five books typically kept within one volume in the Middle Ages, as the one-volume bibles were not common in parishes, especially not poorer ones. From fragments found in other parish churches in the fjords – albeit richer ones – it appears that even parish churches in the rural villages could possess quite a few liturgical and biblical books, but in the case of Hyen we are left to speculate about what would have been available for the poorer ones.            

The church of Hyen reappears in the sources thanks to a letter from the reign of Bishop Audfinn Sigurdsson (1314-1330), the brother of Arne. In this letter, Ragnhild from the hamlet of Ommedal in Hyen confirmed a testamentary gift which had been given by her mother Unna. The letter of confirmation was witnessed by several men of the village, from several hamlets, and the gift of two cows were to be given to Ivar, called Priest-son, from the hamlet of Hope. It is unclear whether the gift was to the church – which would entail that Ivar had taken over the office of his father Hallstein – or whether it was to Ivar as a private individual. Despite Ivar’s unpropitious situation as the son of a priest, and therefore also a bastard, it is not unlikely that he was given his father’s office. Despite the ideals of the Norwegian bishops, the practicalities of a church spread across a difficult topography such as Norway’s could easily entail a lack of personnel that met the demands of higher ecclesiastics.       

After this letter, we do not know much more about the church in Hyen. The traditional interpretation of its later history was that it fell into disrepair during the Black Death. However, we do not have any concrete evidence for such a fate, especially since it is unclear how strongly the plague ravaged the village of Hyen in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is also possible that it became defunct following the Reformation of Denmark/Norway (1536-37), when the king became the supreme head of the church and reorganised the ecclesiastical infrastructure to do away with poorer parishes and expropriate church property. Until we conduct archaeological excavations of the area, we might never know.

The area around the stone is colloquially known as 'Kirkjegarden', literally 'the church yard', but also the Norwegian term for a cemetery. When the grass was placed on a hayrack to dry, the hayrack placed near the stone was called 'kirkjehesa', or the church hayrack. There are stories that older generations discovered remnants from the medieval cemetery, but these are unconfirmed. 

The temporary church bell


Today, I gave a brief presentation about the now-lost medieval church of my native village of Hyen in the Western Norwegian fjords. The presentation followed an outdoors church service, arranged as part of our annual village festival, according to an established tradition. These services are usually in non-consecrated places, but this year the service was held on the site where the medieval church once stood - at least in overwhelming probability. The former church site is located next to one of the neighbourhood farms, and the family of that farm had done a great job to prepare for the service and lent equipment for the occasion. I will write more about this service and my presentation at a later point, but to catch the mood of this unconventional church service, I give you the church bell, suspended from an old walking cane belonging to the farmer family, stuck into the walls of the now-torn-down barn. While the bell was brought by the representatives of the parish church, the arrangement was done through what was readily available on the farm, a mixture of conventional and unconventional that highlighted how such church services are made possible through team work and contributions from the local community. It serves as a good symbol for the occasion, and filled me with great joy. 

torsdag 30. juni 2022

Ten years of tweeting


The other week I was notified that it was my Twitterversary, the anniversary of my having joined Twitter, which happened ten years ago. In the course of that decade, I have been a consistent if not effective user of Twitter, and despite the many problems and flaws of the platform, it has served me very well. For the occasion of my tenth Twitterversary, this blogpost is a brief reflection on how Twitter has helped me as an academic, and how Twitter can be a very useful tool to a young researcher.         

My decision to join Twitter was very much the result of my particular situation in June 2012. This was supposed to have been my final term as an MA student, and my defence should have been sometime in that month if everything had gone according to plan. As it turned out – or rather, as new source material emerged – it became clear that if I were to aim for a high grade, I had to take an extra term to work on my dissertation. The choice was easily made, and it turned out to be a good choice, something to which I might return if I end up writing a post commemorating the ten-year anniversary of my MA degree later this year. However, after two years of immersing myself in medieval history and absorbing a lot of details about various historical sources, I was filled to the brim with information, and also a bit of knowledge, for which I had a very limited audience. There were my fellow MA-students, several of whom were and remain dear and close friends, but since many of them were themselves struggling with their theses, and since some of them also had to take an extra term to finish up their dissertations, it was out of the question to lambast their already-taut concentration with a flurry of minutiae pertaining to my particular work. I briefly taught about Facebook, but because most of the people there were family and friends outside of academia, or at least outside of medieval study, I decided I needed to seek new audiences. The choice fell on Twitter.        

In the beginning I was a very ineffective tweeter. Most of my output was disconnected bits of information, basically just shrieks for attention, but within the first year I got in touch with a some very interesting followers with whom I could share and from whom I could learn about my own field. The medievalist community back then was still very fresh, at least so it felt to me, and the problems of trolling, dogpiling, doxxing and harassment that spring up from time to time, especially from right-wing corners, were not strongly felt, although it would be naïve of me to suggest that it was an innocent time.   

The predominantly constructive tone of the medievalist part of the Twitterverse turned out to be a great boon for me as a young researcher with some vague but strongly felt ambitions. One particular aspect that I treasure to this day was the Twitter account of the medieval section of British Library. While this account, @BLMedieval, is still running and while those who run the account are doing very good work, the two people in charge in these first years of my Twitter membership did an exceptional job in reaching out to people and broadcast their work and their materials. The tweets of the British Library’s medieval team garnered discussions about palaeography and dating, and as a young researcher who had so far only worked from editions and not from the manuscripts themselves, these discussions and threads became a great laboratory in which I could learn, test my growing skills, and be inspired to search out new materials. This was how I learned palaeography, and while my range as a palaeographer is still quite limited, these discussions and threads provided me with an opportunity I would otherwise have had to pay for through summer schools or courses, and this happened at a point in time where I could not pay for these things. My progress was also due to the infinite patience and kindness of established academics who suffered a young, at times arrogant, and often mistaken scholar in his attempts to understand the material. It was thanks to their guidance and expertise that I gathered enough comprehension to read, transcribe and publish an edition of the liturgical office of Saint Edmund Martyr as part of my PhD thesis, for instance. And that same help led me later on to join some of the pioneering work on medieval manuscript fragments conducted at the University of Southern Denmark, work which is still ongoing, and which opened up new avenues for me after my PhD viva.        
After ten years, I still do not claim to have mastered Twitter as an outlet or as a social medium. I am a prolific tweeter, but I have nowhere near the impact of people who use Twitter more effectively, or who garner more interest among followers. But because I write about things that interest me – both within academia and in my personal life – I have managed to build up a community of people with whom I exchange ideas and views, from whom I learn immensely much on a daily basis, and to whom I can share things. This exchange of ideas has been phenomenally useful for me as an academic, especially because I use Twitter in conjunction with this blog. As a consequence, blogging and tweeting comprise a joint laboratory in which I test ideas and get the pleasure of writing for an audience. Sometimes these things I write can turn into academic texts, or they can become part of presentations, or talks. Or, perhaps more importantly, these things I write are left out of future projects because they turn out to be either wrong, insignificant, or useless to develop further. Having that kind of audience with which I can discuss, and by whom I can be guided and inspired, has no doubt made me a better writer, and in general a better communicator. It is also important to note that this community is not solely comprised of academics. One of my principles in writing is to make things as accessible as possible for a widest audience possible. Fortunately, many of those with whom I share this community of letters – and images and memes and gifs and so on – are non-academics who take a great interest in the things I work on, and who very often have valuable knowledge about those things that they pass on to me.           

Having such a community of scholars, academics, non-academics and general enthusiasts has proved important for me as an academic, as well as a person. Friendships have been made, contacts have been established, help has been offered – for instance in the interpretation of a tricky manuscript fragment or a difficult Latin phrase – and opportunities have been given. Because Twitter has enabled me to connect with scholars within my immediate area of expertise, but also beyond it, I have been notified of, and also been approached about, opportunities for speaking or publishing. Four of my published articles, for instance came about because of notifications from, and offers made by, people I know from Twitter. Similarly, interesting research, new publications and job offers have been brought to my attention thanks to this Twitter community that encompasses such a wide range of people. And in the very early days of my academic career, at some of my first conference presentations, friends live-tweeted my talks and helped me reach a broader audience – a kindness I can never properly repay them.   
I am still tweeting, and I am still benefitting immensely from this community. Twitter does provide opportunities, but it is also important to note that the benefits of being on Twitter very much depends on the kind of community you are able to build, and with whom you are able to build it. There is no denying that Twitter can be a downright nasty, unwelcoming, even violent place, especially for marginalised groups. Sadly, also within the academic Twittersphere, including the medievalist Twittersphere, the polarising effects of social media have been exacerbated by recent political developments, a brutalisation of the job market, and rising precarity. While I maintain a community of friends and good acquaintances to whom I remain grateful for their interest and feedback, and while I keep meeting new friends and new fellow-travellers, there is also no denying that the nastiness and viciousness of the wider Twittersphere also affects members of this community. I myself am not significant enough to attract much bile, but it is a sobering experience to see masks fall, and to see people reveal themselves as bad players. This is an aspect of Twitter that must not be denied, and that is important to keep in mind as a constant caution, especially to young tweeters, or tweeters from marginalised groups.    

After ten years of tweeting, I have much to be thankful for, and I can point to much in my professional, and also my personal, development that has its root in the Twitter community to which I belong. I still do not know how it came about, and I still have no good advice to offer new members of the Twittersphere, beyond the general advice that always applies for life: Be kind, be generous, and accept no bullshit. This blogpost, therefore, is not about advice, but something akin to a memoir of digital living – an acknowledgement of what this particular social media platform has meant for my development, and a reminder that despite all its shit and all its darkness, there are pockets of good in there, where a person can receive much needed guidance and much needed comradeship, and also a much-needed audience for their bursts of nerdery and enthusiasm. I hope to continue like this for the foreseeable future.           

Post scriptum: The gratitude acknowledged here is directed at many, but especially a few individuals. I have not included their names here as I have not sought their permission to do so. But if you do read this and recognise yourself in my description, know that I am thankful, and that I try to pass on what I received.

mandag 27. juni 2022

For Oslo Pride 2022

Two days ago, two people were killed and many were injured in a mass shooting here in Oslo, aimed at members of the LGBTQIA community in the city, and in the lead-up to the great Pride parade of 2022. The parade itself was cancelled, although a gathering of several thousand people have taken place in the city centre this evening. The tragedy is a terrible reminder of the many undercurrents of violent homophobia that still run within Norwegian society, despite our years of progress towards a more tolerant society. The tragedy is a terrible reminder that there is still a lot of ignorance, hatred and prejudice, and that there is still a long way to go four both public and private institutions in order to ensure that our LGBTQIA friends have the safety to be themselves that they need and that they deserve.  

The book trolley with recommendation for Pride month
The humanities library at University of Oslo

lørdag 25. juni 2022

Saint Olaf in Tønsberg, part 1 - the dragonslayer

A few days ago, I took a trip to Tønsberg, one of Norway's oldest cities. Located one hour south of Oslo by train, Tønsberg is nestled at the foot of a large crag called Slottsfjellet, Castle Mountain, so named because it was the site of a royal stronghold and, from the late thirteenth century, a castle. Medieval Tønsberg contained several churches, some of which I hope to return to in later blogposts, as their outlines and their placement in the cityscape - nestled at the foot of Slottsfjellet - can still be seen clearly today. 

For this short blogpost, however, I will focus on a feature of modern Tønsberg, but one which invokes the medieval past in a display of medievalism typical of twentieth-century Norway. The feature in question is a stained glass window in Tønsberg cathedral. This church was consecrated in 1858 and replaced the medieval Church of Saint Lawrence which by then was in disrepair. By 1858, the church was simply a parish church, as Tønsberg did not become a diocese until 1948, when it was carved from the diocese of Oslo, to which it had belonged since the late eleventh century. 

As Norwegian Lutheran churches are not dedicated to saints - since saints are not part of Lutheran theology - the common name for the new church was Tønsberg church, and now Tønsberg cathedral. However, the fact that this new church had a medieval predecessor and thus participates in a historical continuum is marked and even celebrated. Outside the cathedral is a model of the Church of Saint Lawrence, and a plaque containing information about this medieval church which colloquially is referred to as "Lavranskirken", Lavrans being the Norwegian name for Lawrence. 

The awareness of the medieval past of the current church is also marked by a series of stained glass windows made in 1939 by the glazier Per Vigeland, nephew of the more famous Gustav Vigeland whose statues are given their own park in Oslo. The nave of the cathedral contains a series of impressive medievalesque windows, each of which contains a religious figure. Most of these figures are apostles and prophets, in keeping with the constrictions of Lutheran iconography, and of course the Virgin Mary. However, some windows also include the saints to whom churches were dedicated in medieval Tønsberg. Aside from Saint Lawrence, the medieval city also included churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Michael the Archangel, the apostle Peter, and Olaf. While Mary and Peter could easily fit into the iconographic scheme of the Lutheran parish church, and while Michael at least would be accepted, the choice to also include Lawrence and Olaf in the array of stained glass windows point to a conscious desire to invoke and connect with the medieval past.   

SS Olaf and Thomas in Tønsberg Cathedral 
Made by Per Vigeland in 1939

While there are interesting analyses to be made of all the Tønsberg saints as depicted in glass in the cathedral, I here want to focus on the figure of Saint Olaf. Since he also was a historical king who is given the credit for finalising the conversion of the Norwegians to Christianity - a claim that is rightly challenged in modern scholarship - Olaf is one of those saints who can be found in Lutheran iconography despite the general unbelief in the cult of saints. When Olaf does appear in church art, he is often, as in the case of Tønsberg cathedral, called Saint Olaf, or otherwise Olaf the Holy, which creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that testifies to the importance of Olaf in the historical imagination of the Norwegian Lutheran establishment. To put it differently, the place of Olaf in Norwegian history has ensured him a degree of veneration that circumvents the scepticism towards saintly figures. 

Per Vigeland's depiction of Olaf is interesting not only because of its circumvention of Lutheran standards, but also because of how it connects with and builds on the medieval iconography of Saint Olaf. In the stained glass window, Olaf is seen holding the axe and the royal orb which are typical attributes in medieval renditions. Moreover, he is standing on a dragon, which is a common feature of several paintings and sculptures, although sometimes he stands on a human figure rather than a dragon. In these two aspects, Vigeland's Olaf is very medieval. However, Vigeland has also departed from the medieval models by making Olaf's attention being drawn to the dragon on which he stands. In medieval images, Olaf shows no concern regarding the dragon or the enemy that he has trampled underfoot, but instead the saint stares serenely ahead, his gaze attentive to other matters, such as those who come to venerate him.

In the Tønsberg window cycle, however, Olaf raises the axe as if to strike and pulls the royal orb towards himself as if to keep it out of reach of the enemy, a pose that suggests the dragon is not yet defeated, even though its visible eye is closed. In addition, we see that the dragon is engulfed in flames, which might serve as an allusion to the hellfire to which Saint Michael pushes the satanic dragon in another of Vigeland's window. Olaf is, in other words, depicted as a dragonslayer in a way that builds on, but also breaks with, medieval iconographic tradition. Whereas medieval images showed Olaf having conquered the enemy - be it man or beast, or beast with the head of a man - this modern rendition shows the moment before this victorious pose. 

What we see in Per Vigeland's depiction of Saint Olaf is, in other words, an excellent example of how medieval iconography still impacts modern iconography, and how the figure of Saint Olaf is imagined in a way that has roots stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages. Vigeland's image of the Norwegian saint-king is a clear case of medievalism, where the medieval tradition, the medieval iconography and medieval history is invoked and used as the basis for a modern artistic expression. We can only speculate as to why Vigeland chose to depart from the medieval standard depictions, and it is possible that the answer can be found in Vigeland's contemporary context. But I know too little about Vigeland's view of the world to hazard a speculative analysis here.