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Den primitivistiske vendingen i norsk historisk middelalderforskning

knut.helle@ahkr.uib.no

Knut Helle, f. 1930, cand.philol. 1957, professor emeritus ved Institutt for arkeologi, historie, kultur- og religionsvitenskap (AHKR), Universitetet i Bergen.

Forfatteren gjennomgår historiografisk og drøfter kritisk det han oppfatter som de to

hovedsidene ved den «primitivistiske» eller «antropologiske» vendingen i norsk historisk middelalderforskning i de fire siste årtiene – den såkalt substantivistiske oppfatningen av førkapitalistisk økonomi og tanken om et førstatlig samfunn i vikingtid og tidlig middelalder. Det primitivistiske i de to synsmåtene består i at de betoner «fortidens annerledeshet» i forhold til dagens samfunn. Hovedkonklusjonen er at selv om middelalderen på mange måter var annerledes, var den ikke så annerledes som ledende talsmenn for den primitivistisk/antropologiske vendingen har villet ha det til.

The primitivistic approach to Norwegian medieval history

The author undertakes a critical examination of the ‘primitivistic’ or ‘anthropological’ approach to Norwegian medieval history during the past four decades. He concentrates on what he considers to be the two main aspects of this approach – the so-called substantivistic interpretation of medieval economy and the notion of the pre-state character of the early medieval kingdom. Both views are primitivistic in the sense that they present the past as fundamentally different from the present. The author does not subscribe to the substantivistic tenet that trade from the Viking Age to the high Middle Ages was mainly gift exchange and redistribution administered by political leaders and social elite, and that market trade for economic gain was a marginal phenomenon. He sides with archaeologists who have recently argued that the latter type of trade was already a substantial part of the Viking Age exchange of goods, and argues that it came to dominate in high medieval Norwegian towns. Doubt is cast on the substantivistic doctrines that price setting was not affected by supply and demand, that subsistence and prestige goods were exchanged within separate economic spheres, and that Viking Age emporia and later medieval towns to a large extent functioned as ‘ports of trade’ where rulers administered the exchange. The author concurs with numismatists who argue that minted money was more available and played a greater role in medieval economic transactions than is maintained by substantivists. As for the pre-state model applied to the early medieval Norwegian kingdom, it is argued that it tends to hamper the recognition of factual state-building tendencies before the mid-twelfth century. Even though medieval economic and political circumstances were undoubtedly different from modern conditions, the main conclusion is that they were not as different as maintained by leading primitivists.

Keywords: Historiography · Knut Helle · Middle Ages · Norway · Viking Age
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