In the first chapter of this book, I examined Afghanistan in terms of the longue durée aspects of material life and social organization, which had persisted for centuries and even millennia. These included features of agricultural production, exchange relationships, ethnic groups, and cohesive geographic units. From this perspective, most of Abdur Rahman’s achievements were ephemeral—political changes imposed from above at great cost that appeared transformative but were not. The amir had used his access to new military technology to outmatch his opponents, but he resolutely resisted the introduction of other new technologies (such as rail transport, steam engines, and telegraph lines) that were transforming the economic organization and social structure of his neighbors. As a result, the Afghan economy remained overwhelmingly subsistence based, and goods continued to move to markets as they always had—on the backs of donkeys, horses, and camels over unimproved caravan trails. Agricultural surpluses could not be profitable transported from one region of the country to another, let alone easily exported. The state industries that historians use as examples of the amir’s innovations in fact simply equipped his military with modern arms and raised revenues for his government. They had no transformative impact on the Afghan economy because they were located almost exclusively in Kabul and required imported raw materials to function. Most significantly, while the amir had eliminated the old regional elites as political players and gained power over their territories by military force, he did not alter rural Afghan society. The social structure of qawms and the regional ties they represented still predominated at the village and provincial levels. They may have been subordinated to the Kabul government or displaced by warfare, but these social structures had not been eradicated or even greatly changed. Kabul therefore became the leading political and economic center of Afghanistan because it was the amir’s capital and the exclusive seat of government. Yet it was a center only by default: Afghanistan’s level of urbanization was higher in the fifteenth century under the Timurids, when Herat and Balkh were international centers of culture and commerce—something that late nineteenth-century Kabul (with a population of only fifty thousand) never came close to achieving.
29 January 2020
From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 160-161:
27 January 2020
From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 167-169:
Abdur Rahman’s imprint would remain surprisingly strong over time, as Barnett Rubin discovered through a statistical analysis of who held prominent government positions eighty years later.
The ethnic composition of the old regime [of the 1970s] was remarkably similar to that of the court circles originally recruited by Amir Abdur Rahman. The most salient characteristic of that elite was that it included more than ten times the concentration of Muhammadzais and Kabulis than the population as a whole. Other Pashtuns were also over-represented, and the overrepresentation of Pashtuns and Muhammadzais was greater among the core power holders than it was in the elite as a whole. Tajiks (mostly Kabulis) were also quite predominant, but mainly in the legal, financial, and social ministries; Pashtuns held the core of power.The power base of this new elite stood in sharp contrast to the old feudal aristocracy, although it remained largely Pashtun in origin. The feudal aristocracy’s economic power had rested on its landed estates in the provinces, and its political power was derived either from the troops that it could muster or its ability to mobilize its own people in support of (or opposition to) the national government. Abdur Rahman’s elite drew its wealth and political influence either from state patronage that could be withdrawn at any time or their ability to influence state policy. Unlike previous Afghan elites, these people were not masters of a national government but rather its servants. It was a rentier aristocracy that would live in a hothouse world in which everyone knew everyone else (and where everyone not related by birth appeared to be connected by marriage). Members of the Muhammadzai clan in particular would come to display a paradoxical air of aristocratic hauteur undercut by a political servility that ill befit either Afghanistan’s egalitarian ethos or its tribal emphasis on preserving personal autonomy. More significantly for Afghanistan’s future, they were city people in a land where the vast majority of the population still lived in rural villages. Their ties to, and understanding of, this “other Afghanistan” were weak. For the next eighty years, national politics would be restricted to the city of Kabul and the state-dependent elite that held the reins of power there.
Like a similar prerevolutionary aristocracy in France, a small but influential minority of their members were supporters of radical social and political change. They assumed that they would be the leaders of any progressive movement because they were the only educated people in the country. Yet the expansion of the government and economy in the 1960s began to produce a larger class of educated people, who lacked the same access to power and wealth, and the respect for the existing structures of power. Previously, the number of such people was so small that they could be incorporated into the older aristocracy directly or at least co-opted into its patronage network with government jobs. But by the 1970s, their numbers had become too large and their social origins too diverse for this tactic to be effective. The dominating role of Kabul in Afghan political life instead had the perverse effect of creating a mirror counter-elite that Rubin labeled “rentier revolutionaries.” While these groups spoke of radical socialist change that would transform Afghanistan, their means of achieving this goal were the same as their royal predecessors’: to control the state’s assets and use its power themselves.
Based almost exclusively in Kabul, this counter-elite had few ties to rural Afghanistan, even though many had provincial origins. They certainly had no political base there. Rather, they saw themselves as a socialist vanguard party that would use the state to reorganize the economy and Afghan society from the top down. Although more radical, they shared with the Muhammadzais a dependency on state institutions and state power to implement such changes. After taking control of the state structure in 1978, they assumed that they could use its power to impose their policies on the rest of the country at a rapid pace. Never was an assumption more unwarranted. The realities on the ground in Afghanistan would prove much more challenging and difficult, as this and all future governments would come to learn through hard experience. It would also raise questions long buried: What made a government legitimate, and who had the right to rule?
23 January 2020
From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 122-124):
Until 1840 religion had played a minor role in internal Afghan politics because fighting had always been Muslim on Muslim. Raising the banner of jihad had been a popular way to mobilize Afghans outward for invasions directed at the polytheists on the Indian plain or their Muslim rulers. But the British occupation of Afghanistan in support of Shuja raised the question of whether his regime had lost the authority normally inherent to a Muslim ruler. If Shuja’s government was just a cloak for the rule of foreign infidels, then rebellion against it would be justified. The charge that the government had betrayed Afghanistan’s Muslims and deserved to be toppled was therefore a constant theme in the propaganda directed against the British and Shuja. It had surprisingly little resonance when the British first invaded. It gained traction as the occupation continued, particularly as the British began to direct more of the government’s workings themselves. Putting Afghan opposition in a religious framework also made it more difficult for the British to mobilize previously willing allies among the Ghilzai chiefs. These chiefs declared that it would be politically fatal to take a public stance against a popular jihad opposing foreign occupation when it was so strongly supported by their followers. Of course, as ibn Khaldun had observed, religion had always been the best way to unite tribes that were otherwise too divided to unite on any other basis. It also ennobled more self-interested political, economic, and personal motives. Shuja himself complained that “these men are not influenced by considerations of religion, they give their lives for the wealth of this world and do not fear death.” That may have been true, but leaping to a “defense of Islam” to justify resisting a regime in Kabul or its policies would henceforth become a sword that was rarely sheathed in Afghan politics, regardless of whether foreigners were actually present on Afghan soil.
The rebellions against the British did not originate within Afghanistan’s Durrani elite. Although those who had experienced a loss of power may have incited others to violence, they took on leadership roles only well after the fighting had started. Instead, the first rebellions were mounted by more marginal groups that had their own grievances. The most important of these were the Pashtun Ghilzai tribes to the east and south of Kabul, and the Tajik Kohistanis of the plains and mountains north of Kabul. Chiefs and clergy from these regions who mobilized their own fighters were at the center of the resistance, not the existing forces of the irregular cavalry that were commanded by the Durranis. The trouble was also localized. The Durranis in Qandahar did not rise at all until two months after Kabul had fallen and then failed to take the city. Nor were there uprisings among the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, or in distant Herat. But in spite of their crucial contributions to the success of the war, neither the Kohistanis nor the Ghilzais took the opportunity to put themselves into power. They instead sought out military and political leadership from the existing (and politically vacillating) Barakzai and Sadozai elite. For example, the Kohistanis initially raised troops in the name of Shuja until he denounced them for using his name and forged seals to justify their rebellion. When it became clear that Shuja was sticking with the British, the Ghilzais and Kohistanis then rallied around Akbar when he took command of the forces besieging their cantonment in Kabul. Although it was he who took the lead in dealing with the British politically, Akbar’s power then and in the months that followed depended more on his Ghilzai allies than his Barakzai kinsmen.
19 January 2020
From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle p. 42:
Few peoples in the world, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans. Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were nonbelievers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect. Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy central Asia for more than a century; Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pashtuns and Baluch excepted) that never should have become a nation; and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent. Convinced they are natural-born Muslims, Afghans cede precedence to no one in matters of religion. They refused to take doctrinal advice from foreign Salafis, who claimed they had a superior vision of Islam, coming as they did from the Islam’s Arabian heartland. Instead, even under the Taliban, Afghans continued to bedeck graves commemorating martyrs with poles and flags, tied cloth swatches to sacred trees, made pilgrimages to the shrines of saints reputed to cure illnesses or help women conceive, and placed magical charms on their children and valuable domestic animals to ward off the evil eye. Afghans responded to any criticism of these practices by arguing that since there are no purer or stronger believers in Islam than themselves, their customs must be consistent with Islam. Otherwise they would not practice them. Islamic Sufi orders (Nakhshbanidya and Chisti particularly) are also well established in the country and give a mystic turn to what sometimes appears to be an austere faith.
17 January 2020
From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 10-11:
Chapter 2 examines the premodern patterns of political authority and the groups that wielded it. During this period nation-states did not exist and regions found themselves as parts of various empires. This chapter focuses on how (and what kinds of) territory was conquered, how conquerors legitimated their rule, and the relationship of such states with peoples at their margins.
In Turko-Persia, rulers did not seek to impose their authority uniformly across the landscape. Instead they imposed direct rule only in urban areas and on productive agricultural lands that paid more than it cost to administer them. They employed strategies of indirect rule when dealing with the peoples who had poor subsistence economies. These did not repay the cost of administration, and their location in remote mountains, deserts, and steppes provided natural bulwarks against attack. But the relationship between the center and these hinterlands was of great significance because when state authority weakened, it was tribal groups from the hinterlands that most often toppled existing regimes. The tribal groups that most commonly succeeded at this task were the Turks of central Asian steppe origin. Their hierarchical tribal structure gave them an advantage over more egalitarian tribal groups, which had more difficulty unifying and supporting a single leader. The Turks were also heirs to a horse cavalry tradition that remained militarily decisive against people who fought on foot until gunpowder weapons entered the picture.
The long-term dominance of Turkish dynasties in the region has been underplayed in a modern Afghan history that gives primacy to the Pashtuns as the country’s rulers. But in reality the Pashtuns were never rulers in Afghanistan before the mid-eighteenth century. Only at that time, after serving as military auxiliaries to the Safavid and Afsharid empires in Iran, did the Durrani Pashtuns come to power by adopting the governmental structure and military organization of their former overlords. Indeed Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of the Afghan Empire, inherited the lands he ruled only after his Iranian patron, Nadir Shah Afshar, was assassinated. He and his heirs imposed the Turkish tradition of royal succession that demanded the ruler be chosen from only within the royal lineage. During this period the Afghan Empire slowly lost its most valuable provinces and retreated into the boundaries similar to those of today’s Afghanistan.
16 January 2020
From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 6-7:
More than any other set of events, the Communist coup and Soviet invasion opened the question of political legitimacy in Afghanistan. The old dynastic tradition was in ruins, but there was nothing to replace it. This issue of who had the right to rule and on what basis was not resolved even after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and its client regime collapsed in 1992. Lacking any overarching political unity among themselves, the various mujahideen resistance factions led the country into civil war and lay the groundwork for the rise of the Taliban. These conflicts eviscerated the formal state structure they were fighting to control and engulfed an ever-larger part of the Afghan population into political struggles from which they had been previously isolated. All the ethnic and regional groups in Afghanistan became politically and militarily empowered, reversing the process of centralization that had been imposed by Abdur Rahman.
Unfortunately the successful resistance strategy of making the country ungovernable for the Soviet occupier also ended up making Afghanistan ungovernable for the Afghans themselves. While the Afghans had recovered from many earlier periods of state collapse, the body politic was now afflicted with an autoimmune disorder in which the antibodies of resistance threatened to destroy any state structure, regardless of who controlled it or its ideology. Compounding this problem was a centuries-old structural weakness: the dependency of all Afghan governments on outside aid for financial stability. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan found itself without world-power patrons for the first time in 150 years and hence had no significant sources of outside revenue with which to fund a central government. In the face of indifference and a lack of aid by the major foreign powers and the international community in general, the country could no longer right itself as it had done so many times in the past.
The stalemated mujahideen civil war opened the door to interference in Afghan affairs by neighboring states, strengthened regional ethnic power brokers, and facilitated the exploitation of Afghanistan’s weakness by foreign Islamist groups. At the forefront of these Islamist groups was the Afghan Taliban, which with the support of Pakistan and foreign jihadists, took power in Kabul in 1996. Although they justified their rule in Islamic terms, the Taliban were largely Pashtuns who saw all other ethnic groups as enemies. Even after they had conquered almost all the country, they never created a real government, and Afghanistan became a classic failed state. As an ally of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, the Taliban were the immediate target of U.S. retribution following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. The Taliban fell even more quickly than they rose: once it became clear that they would lose, every region of the country (including the Pashtun south) turned against them. Foreign troops were welcomed, against all expectations, because the Afghans saw them as a bulwark of protection against the very Afghan forces that had driven the country into ruin. More pragmatically it was equally clear that the Afghan government and economy could not be revived without massive infusions of foreign aid. If other wars had driven Afghans out of the country, the end of this one brought back about four million people, the largest repatriation of refugees ever seen (and one done largely by the Afghans themselves).
15 January 2020
From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 72-75:
Now Karl Knutsson was recalled to the throne for the third time. Although he was by no means a great man and suffered throughout his political life from his inability to win the love and trust of the peasants, as Engelbrekt had done, Knutsson has a place of honor in the story of Sweden; in his time, he provided a focal point for Swedish dreams of freedom and independence. Before he died in May 1470, Knutsson named Sten Sture as succeeding regent. Sture was never to seek the title of king and thus initiated the period which has come to be known as “the Sture Age.”
Christian, of course, was far from being reconciled to the turn of events in Sweden, and in the summer of 1471, his fleet set sail for Stockholm carrying with it a large and well-equipped army. Upon landing in Sweden the Danish forces were joined by the Unionist nobility, and the combined armies laid siege to Stockholm. Sture called upon the peasants of Svealand, the great province that stretches almost from the Baltic to the Norwegian frontier, to rally to the Swedish cause, and they came in the thousands. The rustic Swedish army then marched upon Stockholm, and on October 10, 1471, one of the great dates of Swedish history, they confronted the Danes on the heights of Brunkeberg, just beyond the northern wall of the city.
The battle that followed ended in a complete triumph for Sture’s legions. The Dannebrog, that miraculous standard, was captured by the embattled countryfolk; Christian himself was wounded, and the flower of Danish nobility was killed. This decisive victory gave Sweden peace with Denmark for a generation, and in thankfulness for the country’s deliverance, Sten Sture commissioned the German wood carver Bernt Notke to fashion a heroic statue of Saint George, the city’s patron saint. The statue was presented to Sture in the Church of Saint Nicholas, in Stockholm. It stands there to this day, gloriously ornate: Saint George, in splendid armor, his horse similarly caparisoned and plumed, rides with sword raised, while beneath the hoofs of his rearing steed writhes a dragon of singularly repellent aspect.
Christian, his military ambitions considerably reduced, now set himself to make Copenhagen a center of scholarship. Up to that time, no secular centers of learning existed in Scandinavia. Advanced education was offered in the north only under the aegis of the Catholic Church or pursued abroad, usually at the University of Paris. He declared his intention to found the first university of Scandinavia. Informed of this project, Sture resolved to beat his old enemy even in this, and in 1477, the great University of Uppsala, now a seat of learning renowned throughout the world, opened its doors to its first students. Copenhagen did not have its university until a year later. Under Sture’s guidance, Sweden began to emerge into the modern world. Six years after the foundation of the university, Sweden was given its first printing press, also at Uppsala, and regent and archbishop gathered around this mechanical wonder, which turned out the first printed book in Swedish in 1483.
In 1481, Christian I of Denmark died, and the Danes, anxious to restore the Union, proposed that the election of a successor should be postponed until representatives of all three Scandinavian nations could meet to thrash out a new constitution for the Union. A meeting was held at Halmstad in 1483, but it was attended by delegations from Norway and Denmark only, as Sten Sture boycotted the gathering. Christian’s son, John, was elected king of Norway and Denmark, but no word came from Sweden, where Sture was having trouble, as usual, with the nobility. This time, however, he held a weapon which kept them in check: The peasants idolized “Our Lord Sture” and whenever the nobles showed signs of serious opposition, Sture called a Riksdag. The solid backing which the peasants and small merchants gave him at these meetings, of which twenty were held between 1470 and 1497, was enough to intimidate the regent’s aristocratic enemies.
Peaceful progress was not destined to last long, however. In 1495, the Swedish nobles persuaded Russia to declare war on Sweden while they themselves joined forces with King John of Denmark, hoping that Sture would be unable to face a war on two fronts. The regent, however, got the better of the Russian forces in Finland; he then rounded on the Danes and the rebel Swedish noblemen, who were led by Svante Nilsson Natt och Dag. (The latter part of his name translates as Night and Day, a reflection of the blue and gold quarterings on his coat-of-arms.)
Civil war broke out in Sweden, and Sture had almost subdued the rebels when John of Denmark’s fleet appeared off the coast with a large sea-borne army. Once again, the peasants formed up behind their “Lord.” In a letter to the governors of Stockholm, the peasants of Dalecarlia wrote: “Dear friends, you all know that since he became our regent we have enjoyed law and order, and peace and quiet have reigned. You also know that the provinces and castles of our Fatherland were formerly in divers hands, but that they are now united because he ventured life and property in this cause. Since he has served us so faithfully, we cannot suffer him to be driven from the regency by force.” For all the support of the local peasants, however, Sture did not command sufficient forces to risk a pitched battle against John’s powerful array, and he fell back to Stockholm, where he was besieged. His pleas for reinforcements from other parts of the country seem to have gone unheeded, and in October 1497, Sture surrendered the city in return for a full amnesty for himself and all his followers. John was at once elected king of Sweden by the triumphant noblemen who had backed him.
09 January 2020
From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 166-167:
The death of Christian VI in 1746 and the succession of his son as Frederick V was welcomed by most Danes.
Meanwhile, in Sweden, effective government was exercised by Count Arvid Horn, celebrated as one of Charles XII’s most daring generals and, later, as a skillful diplomat. As president of the estate of nobles, Horn decided that war-weary Sweden needed a long period of peace, and he had to choose his allies with some care. In 1727, when Horn began his rule, Europe was divided into two rival camps. England-Hannover and France stood opposed to Austria, Spain, and Russia, and Horn finally linked the fortunes of Sweden with the Anglo-French combination.
For eleven years, Horn pursued a pacifist policy, much to the displeasure of a large number of young noblemen who were eager to follow a more aggressive course, an aspiration in which they were supported by many influential businessmen and burgesses. These aggressively minded young men nicknamed Horn’s party the “Nightcaps” or more usually the “Caps,” in tribute to their sleepy conduct of national affairs, and in consequence came to call themselves the “Hats.”
In the 1730s, the alliance between England and France broke up, and the French ambassador in Stockholm, well supplied with money, began to intrigue with the Hats. By the payment of large bribes, he managed to organize a campaign of ruthless agitation and abuse aimed at Horn’s government. In 1739, Horn was forced to resign and his supporters were expelled from the council. The Hats, generally men of the lesser nobility and the bourgeoisie, took over.
The aim of the Hats was to take revenge on Russia, with French help, and the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1741 seemed to give them the opportunity that they sought. Beginning with a tripartite contest for the Austrian inheritance and the invasion of Austria by Frederick the Great of Prussia, it was to draw many European nations into the fray. France, Spain, Bavaria, and Sweden came to Prussia’s support, while Britain and Holland joined beleaguered Austria. Separately, Sweden declared war on Russia. The entire conflict, which was fought in many combinations and in many theaters, including the American colonies (where it was known as King George’s War), lasted until 1748.
05 January 2020
From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 212-213:
In Finland, administrative ties with Sweden had been exchanged for ties with Russia, but literary life such as it was continued to develop in its own fashion. Despite the crosscurrents of Classicism, Romanticism, and Realism that were playing elsewhere in Europe, Finland’s chief concern in the nineteenth century was the development of a unified national language. Literature and theater could not emerge until a Finnish language had been developed and accepted among cultivated men, who up to that time had been conversant only in Swedish. Finland’s vast store of folklore offered the most promising area of exploration to the generation of writers who first tackled the language problem. Writing in 817 [1817?], a student argued: “No independent nation can exist without a fatherland, and no fatherland can exist without folk poetry [which is] nothing more than the crystal in which a nationality can mirror itself.” The key figure in this search for a national identity was Elias Lönnrot, who as a philologist-folklorist, collected materials from the Lapps, the Estonians, the Karelians, and other Finnish tribes, and assembled both the first dictionary of the Finnish language and its first extensive written literature. His legend, Kalevala (1835), a compilation of some 22,000 lines of oral history, tells in epic form the mythic history of the Finns from the Creation to the coming of Christianity, and it served as a rallying point for Finnish nationalist feeling, not only in subsequent literature, but in painting, sculpture, music, and political life, as the people moved toward independence.
From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 200-202.
The reign of Charles XIV also witnessed two interlinked events whose significance only later became apparent. In 1837, a Scandinavian emigrant to Illinois named Ole Rynning published in Sweden and Norway a book entitled A True Account of America for the Information and Help of Peasant and Commoner. The book sold in large numbers and inspired hundreds of families, especially in Norway, with dreams of settling in the New World. A trickle of Scandinavian emigrants began at once to cross the Atlantic - two shiploads had already sailed in 1825 and 1836 - but it was only after the ending of the Civil War and the opening of the American West to settlement that Norway was gripped by what became known as “the American Fever.”
Anybody who reads the works of Norway’s Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) or sees his plays cannot fail to be depressed by the straitlaced, puritan atmosphere under which his countrymen lived in the nineteenth century. Ibsen himself could not bear the moral climate of his own country and spent much of his adult life abroad. Thousands upon thousands of Norwegians resolved to escape, and between 1865 and 1914, 674,000 of them migrated to the United States - the total exodus from Norway in the century between 1836 and 1935 was 861,000.
Sweden, as was natural, thanks to its larger population, played an even more impressive part than Norway in the making of America. Official figures, which are probably on the low side, show that 950,000 Swedes emigrated to the United States (and to a much lesser degree to Canada) between 1851 and 1910. World War I more or less halted emigration from both countries and the tightening of United States immigration laws in 1924 has since imposed a permanent ceiling on the influx of all foreign-born peoples.
The Scandinavian newcomers settled largely in the states of the Middle West and Northwest, whose climate and landscape reminded them of home. Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, and the Dakotas were developed, largely thanks to Swedish and Norwegian workers, and Swedish colonies took root also in Maine, Massachusetts, and Nebraska. American visitors to Norway, in particular, will find it difficult to discover a Norwegian family that does not have relatives in the United States; thousands more Norwegians have visited America in the ships of their country’s great merchant fleet.
01 January 2020
From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 39-41:
Beginning with Norwegian colonization in the tenth century, the art of heroic poetry flourished in Iceland. The tradition came with the invaders, and many of the sagas dwell on ancient Norwegian history, but the poetic gift seems to have been uniquely Icelandic. The earliest works were oral literature, composed by anonymous poets, and they survived from one generation to the next. These and many newly written ones began to be set down on calfskin in the thirteenth century by scholar-monks. Of the vast body of prose and poetry they produced, some 700 manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts have survived to inform students of Scandinavian history. The poetry falls into two broad categories - anonymous Eddaic poems, which relate the deeds of ancient pagan gods and mortal heroes, and the skaldic poems, told by professional skalds, or poets, and based upon Christian themes and personalities.
The most famous of the historical sagas are, perhaps, the Halljreda Saga, which deals with the days of King Olaf Trygvasson, the Saga of Eric the Red, the Saga of the Greenlanders, and the Heimskringla, a collection of sagas written by Snorri Sturluson giving an account of the history of Norway through the semilegendary biographies of its kings, from early times up to the year 1177.
Two collections of sagas exist under the general name of Edda. About the year 1650, after Iceland had become an appendage of Denmark, an Icelandic bishop discovered an old parchment book whose text bore similarities to the known Edda but appeared to be of earlier vintage. He called it the Elder Edda. Unhappily for Iceland, the bishop’s daughter had just been seduced by a young priest, and her angry father was resolved that the girl’s honor should be properly avenged. Accordingly, he offered his precious manuscripts to the king of Denmark on the strict condition that the erring priest should be heavily punished. We are not told what happened to the poor young man, but in due time, the Elder Edda found its way to the Royal Library of Copenhagen to the great and lasting resentment of all Icelanders.
In April 1971, a Danish naval frigate dropped anchor in the harbor of Reykjavík to be greeted by most of the city’s 70,000 inhabitants. The ship brought back, at long last, the precious manuscripts to be given into the care of the Icelandic nation, and the occasion was one of deep rejoicing. For the Icelanders today still hold the world’s record as publishers and readers of books. Each year some 600 new books come off the presses in Reykjavík and most of these run into editions of from 5,000 to 7,000 copies. No other nation has so many publishers or readers per capita, although the Finns and Norwegians come close. With this 1,000-year tradition of love and respect for the written word, little wonder that the return of their precious sagas meant so much to the people of the little republic.
From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 16-17:
While the Danes and the Norwegians were venturing southward and westward in their search for a better life, the Swedes looked toward the East. Already, Swedish Ruotsi, or rowing men, had made themselves the masters of much of the eastern coast of the Baltic and had established settlements in what would later be called Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. But the Swedes were not content to remain on the Baltic coast. They rowed their longships down the gulf which leads to modern St. Petersburg and up to Lake Ladoga, that great inland sea. Thence, the Ruotsi, or “Rus” (as the Slav tribesmen they met corrupted the name), set the prows of their vessels toward the south, down the network of rivers that run to the Black and the Caspian seas. They were led, the Russian chroniclers tell us, by Rurik and two lieutenants, Askold and Dir, who were possibly his brothers. Rurik founded a “kingdom” south of Lake Ladoga and established the city of Novgorod, while his brothers, pressing farther south, set themselves up as kings of Kiev, on the Dnieper River. By the year 900, the two Swedish colonies were united as the lusty new state of Kievan Rus. Russia owes its name and its foundation as a nation to these Swedish oarsmen.
The purpose of the Swedes was not so much conquest, though that was an essential part of their plan, as trade. Swedish ships plied the river courses in such numbers that even Constantinople was threatened by the merchant-marauders. There, at the seat of the Roman Empire, the Swedes gathered goods from the East - gold, silver, carpets, tapestries, perfumes, leatherwork, dried fruits, precious stones, and many other things never before seen in their homeland. These treasures were shipped to Gotland, a large island in the middle of the southern Baltic Sea, which developed into a rich trading entrepôt. To it came merchants from the mainland of Sweden, Denmark, and countries as far afield as France and Holland. Modern research has unearthed in Gotland hoards of coins from every part of the world known to tenth-century Europe.