Interpreting Violence

A bioarchaeological perspective of violence from medieval central Sweden

Authored by: Anna Kjellström

The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict

Print publication date:  November  2013
Online publication date:  December  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415842198
eBook ISBN: 9781315883366
Adobe ISBN: 9781134677979


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The shift from the Viking Age (ad 800–1050) to the Swedish Middle Ages (ad 1050–1527) was a transition that has traditionally been portrayed as a leap from prehistoric to historic times — from paganism to Christianity, from farms or proto-towns such as Birka and Ribe to towns like Sigtuna and Lund, and from chiefdoms to centrally governed courts. These dichotomies are, of course, a simplification. In reality the transition was a complex, nonlinear one that started in some fields of society as early as the late eighth century and in others not until the mid-twelfth century. A common, often emphasized, theme during this dynamic period is that people lived in societies where violence, or the threat of violence, was a widespread means of control. From the Viking Age (and presumably also in the time periods before that) it was the right to carry weapons that essentially signified and separated free men from unfree men, women and children (Ney 1999). The Viking warrior ideal as reflected in skaldic stanzas on rune stones mirrors an ethos that praised men with weapons and the battles in which they were used (Jesch 2009). This ethical code reflects a society where it was much worse to lose one's honour than to lose one's life. Although the concept of the warrior changed in the Middle Ages to include knights and ideas of chivalry, the means of violence seem to have been the same but were later sanctioned by the Church and the developing state (Lindkvist 2009). During this period in Scandinavia, farmers, both landowners and tenants, were considered free, in contrast to the feudal system in many southern European countries (e.g. Lindkvist and Sjöberg 2010: 104). The farmers were organized, from the early medieval period, in military organizations called Ledungen and Landvärnet and according to the provincial laws all free men from the age of 18 should be armed with a minimum of offensive and defensive weapons (Bjørkvik 1965: 431; Yrwing 1965: 302; Sundberg 1999). Acts of violence also formed a part of the Scandinavian judicial system as a form of punishment and as an accepted instrument of social control (Christiansen 2006: 256), and historians have offered theories about normalized violence in medieval society (Elias 1982; Jansson 2006). The concept of normalized violence denotes a situation where physical assaults are an expected and ordinary part of life and are more or less accepted by the victim, who may even try to find a benign meaning for it (Reidel and Welsh 2001; Dunlap et al 2009).

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