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History of Norway

Early History

The first people to make their way to Norway likely arrived in about 12,000 BC after the glaciers in the region began to recede. These glaciers also helped carve out the landscape of Norway and these early settlers faced huge physical obstacles in settlement due to the mountains, but found the coastline ideal for fishing and hunting.

As the glaciers continued to recede, the people continued to expand further north, again focused on settling the coasts as much of the inland mountains were nearly deserted for thousands of years. These semi-nomadic people began to settle the lands in about 4000 BC as they found farmlands, primarily in the south. Over time new settlers arrived or traders came and went, bringing with them new technology, plants, animals, and cultures. Pigs, cattle, and hardy crops, such as barley, were introduced. Also at about this time (3000-2000 BC) a wave of people from the south arrived, bringing with them what would later evolve into the Norwegian language. Even today most of the people in Norway live along the coasts and in the south of the country, where the lands are most fertile and accessible.

As the people in the south were settling the lands permanently to farm, in the north a group of Finno-Ugric people arrived from modern day Finland. When these people arrived and the exact relationship they had with the people of the south seems uncertain, however these northern people developed a unique culture, language, and distinct ethnicity and today their descendants are known as the Sami (or Saami). More than anyone else in Norway, these people have maintained their traditional culture as they still live off the land to a great degree and are more reliant on nature than most people in the world today. The Sami continue to live in these same upper reaches of the country as the lands remain fairly barren and the population density is quite low, although in recent times some towns and cities have grown.

The Sami likely first arrived to the region in pursuit of reindeer, but later stayed in the region, living semi-nomadic lives. Throughout history, and even today, reindeer are an integral aspect of the Sami culture as reindeer are often captured, domesticated, and bred by the Sami. The reindeer were and still are used for food, clothing, and art, which is created with antlers. Although many Sami today live a more urban lifestyle, these traditions continue to smaller numbers and draw a large number of tourists each year.

Despite the reliance and importance of the reindeer in Sami culture, the Sami also settled along the coasts and became fishermen. While this helped contribute to a different lifestyle, in many ways the culture remained rooted inland with the reindeer farmers. As towns and cities have emerged in northern Norway though, most are along the coast and most of the Sami in Norway live in these areas, while they still maintain numerous aspects of their historic culture, such as their language.

Over time the culture of both the Sami as well as the still-developing Norwegian people changed in many ways. Settlement became more common as did large families living in the same house. Localized political organization began to develop and new technologies arrived, most notably in the form of weapons and sailing vessels.

Outside influences also changed the culture as foreigners made their way to Norway from time to time. One of the greatest of these early influences came from the Romans, who introduced a written language. Another important group arrived in the 400-500s AD, when numerous Germanic groups made their way north, slightly altering the ethnic make-up and language of the Norwegians.

The Germanic people also opened the trade market to Norway as they later controlled much of the North Sea and Baltic Sea trade. These introductions placed many of the Norwegian people into close contact with foreigners as most of the people lived along the coasts as fishers or lived on nearby farmlands. Although direct contact with foreigners was limited, the influence on the economic and way of life changed dramatically over time. Farming and fishing goods were easily tradable as demand rose for these goods and outside items were introduced to Norway, changing the lives of the people on a regular basis. Again though, outside contact with the Sami and Norwegians in the far north was limited.

Viking Age

Norwegian History - Viking Ship, Oseberg
Oseberg Viking Ship

As trade and boat technology expanded, the Viking Age arose in the late 700s and thrived throughout the 900s and even into the 1000s. These sailor-soldiers were well-equipped and well-trained for navigation, trade, and battles. The Vikings began as traders, merchants, and navigators, but later shifted their priorities when they realized the potential wealth in raiding towns and villages in foreign lands. Their early success thrived because their diplomacy and ship technology allowed them to establish huge trade networks (reaching as far as Iraq) as they began to dominate trade along all of Europe's coasts.

During this time, most Vikings stayed in Norway for the short growing season then spent much of the rest of the year trading their goods, including furs, amber, and iron in exchange for steel, silver, and glass among others. Although trade was successful, the Vikings also understood their dominance over the seas and their ability to easily takeover or raid coastal towns and cities. This was when their focus shifted from trade to seeking riches in the form of gold and silver, new lands to settle and farm, and laborers to work the farms.

The Vikings pillaged cities and created settlements as their influence stretched well beyond their northern seas. They were the first Europeans to reach North America and they established or took control over a number of cities including Dublin, Ireland, York, England, settlements in northern Scotland, settlements on the Norman coast in France, Kyiv, Ukraine, the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and they even landed in Newfoundland in modern day Canada (although they never permanently settled there). Perhaps this adventurous spirit arose from the people's past, overcoming vast geographic obstacles to settle lands.

Living on the seas for much of the year, the Vikings also left most work in Norway to the women. Women ran the households and farms as their husbands would be gone for long stretches of time, a very odd concept for the time. Perhaps this was the beginning of women's rights in Scandinavia, or at least it was the beginning of women taking on great responsibility over not just the house, but also the entire homestead for long stretches of time. While the male sailor Vikings are viewed as fierce, the women had to be just as strong and even today this equality is a prominent aspect of Norwegian life. The Vikings were also very religious as they believed in a number of Norse gods, including Thor, Odin, and Freya, which have not been forgotten as Thursday, Wednesday, and Friday are named after them.

While wealth, discovery, settlement, and labor were some of the more well-known goals of the Viking Ages, their outward power also shifted inward as some of the more powerful Vikings sought to control Norway itself. This was led by Harald Fairhair, who consolidated power in the country in 872, beginning a hereditary kingdom. This consolidated domestic rule, but in the following century Viking rule elsewhere declined dramatically as many European countries grew powerful enough to defend themselves, hence ending Viking raids and truly ending Norwegian influence outside its borders for a great number of years.

The power Harald Fairhair and his descendants established only lasted until 960 when the Earls of Lade took power over Norway with their ally, Denmark. Denmark sent numerous Christian missionaries into Norway at this time and had some success in converting the people, but many of the local chiefs fought this change. After small battles, tensions rose and the leader of the Christian movement, Olav Tryggvason was killed in 1000. The church immediately made him a saint and this sparked more people to convert to Christianity. The introduction of Christianity also essentially ended the Viking Age, which was in a slow decline throughout the 900s.

Even today the people are primarily Christian and many of the country's later cultural influences came from Denmark and the south. The introduction of Christianity also helped create some separation from the past as over time the Vikings became viewed as pagans and savages, despite the fact that they were also the ancestors of today's Norwegians.

Middle Ages

Although the Danes succeeded in introducing Christianity in Norway (leading to the construction of the country's famous stave churches in the 1100 and 1200s), their political hold on the country wasn't as successful and Norway again gained independence. Although peace continued into the early-1100s, the country fell into chaos numerous times, generally over succession questions or due to the church's involvement in politics. This ended in 1217 with the crowning of Haakon Haakonsson (Haakon IV) as king.

Under Haakonsson's rule, and the rule of his successors, the focus of the country turned to economic development as farmlands expanded and trade became a focus of the country's economy. Also during this time taxes increased as the government and church consolidated much of the land. This made many of the Norwegians tenants on the farms instead of actual land owners, although their day to day lives changed little due to these changes.

While this time was very stable and economically sound in Norway, it only lasted for about a century. By the mid-1300s the Black Death had killed nearly a third of the population and shortly after this the Germans took over many of the country's ports as they gained a monopoly on the region's trade. The Norwegian king had little power to end this advance since he lost much of his population, and hence much of his fighting force and income, which primarily came through taxation.

The German-controlled Hanseatic League took over the city of Bergen, other cities in Norway, as well as cities across the North Sea and Baltic Sea. Essentially all trade had to go through these Hanseatic League cities, shifting all monetary power and trade into the hands of the German merchants. This pushed the Norwegians into poverty as they became farmers and herders living on the land, rarely active in the trade itself.

Kalmar Union

During this time the Norwegians also suffered a political blow when, in 1380, Olaf Haakonsson inherited both the Norwegian and Danish thrones. Despite being the son of the Norwegian king, he was also the son of a Danish princess and he shifted power to Copenhagen as Denmark and Norway were united politically. Haakonsson died at the age of 16, at which time his Danish mother, Margaret I took power over the countries. She further consolidated power in her capital of Copenhagen, placing Norway as the lesser brother in this union. In 1397 she used her claim on the Swedish crown to add that country to the union, which became known as the Kalmar Union.

The Kalmar Union pushed Norway further into poverty. The country no longer had control over their economic situation due to the Hanseatic League, then they lost control over their political situation due to the Kalmar Union. The people truly became farmers and herders struggling to survive as they had little political voice. Additionally, the people had little true ownership as the lands were almost entirely owned by government and the church.

This power decline was magnified when Margaret I declared war on the ethnic Germans, hence rising taxes on the already impoverished Norwegians and putting the country back on the battlefield. This also created internal chaos as it was the ethnic Germans who controlled the external trade in Norway through the Hanseatic League. Eventually this war was settled as the Germans retained rights on the city of Bergen and in exchange they paid taxes to the central government in Copenhagen. However, little was gained by the Norwegian people.

From the beginning of the Kalmar Union in 1397 until the 1500s Norway suffered politically and economically. This dynamic changed slightly in 1523 when Sweden became powerful enough to remove itself from the Kalmar Union, leaving Norway alone united with Denmark.

Shortly after this, in 1529, Denmark introduced Protestantism to Norway against the people's wishes, a movement that was further pushed under the rule of Christian III a few years later. This forced conversion of the people continued to suppress the people. Also, because the Catholic Church in Norway owned much of the country's land, the Danish king took personal possession of these lands, removing additional power from the Norwegian people. During this time the government became highly centralized as local governments lost rights and power to the king in Copenhagen. At this time Norway was downgraded from a kingdom to a province of Denmark. However, the introduction of Protestantism remained and today many of the Norwegians remain Lutheran.

Despite the political and economic suppression, from the early 1500s into the 1600s the people and culture dramatically changed in Norway. The Norwegian people became quite strong and determined as they clung closely to their Norwegian identity and worked together as one united people. They continued to live off the land as fishers and farmers as the outside world and trade was still dominated by foreign powers (although the Hanseatic League fell in the 1500s, the Danes maintained control of Bergen and international trade). This lifestyle as fishers and farmers became the backbone of what it meant to be Norwegian. This lifestyle also formed the root of the culture and identity of the people and even today Norwegians living an ultra-modern life in Oslo understand, appreciate, and respect this rural lifestyle as the root and core of the historic culture. During this same time the economy improved as did healthcare, giving the people a louder voice and more power.

Also in the 1500s many ethnic Norwegians moved further north, taking lands from the Sami people. This forced many of the Sami onto settlements, which were taxed, as their reliance on reindeer husbandry became less important without the ability to freely roam the lands. This also began a slow conversion process to convert the Sami to Christianity, a process that lasted until 1693 when the last Noaidi, or Sami priest, was killed. This forced settlement was a complete shock on the Sami culture and way of life and in many ways the people have not recovered as many Sami today live in towns or cities and remain Christian. However, the people clung to many other aspects of their culture and today reindeer herding is again a symbol of the culture, the language continues to thrive, and their traditional foods continue to be eaten.

Through the 1600s the people of Norway, both ethnic Norwegians and Sami, were simply citizens of Denmark and in many ways second rate citizens. However, Norway benefited from this relationship in a number of ways. As Danish power and wealth grew, the Norwegians were the recipients of some of this additional wealth. The Norwegians also gained new technology via Denmark, improving the economy. Even in poor times for Denmark, the Norwegians gained in many ways. Denmark's numerous wars in the early 1600s demanded Norwegians fight, but they also bankrupted Denmark, leading to the sale of Norwegian lands, most of which were former church lands owned by the Danish government in the 1600s, back to the Norwegian people. This put the land and finances directly into the hands of the Norwegian people, despite their lack of political power at the time. Europe was also ravaged by wars in the 1600s and early 1700, which led to greater wealth in Norway through the export of food and timber from the region.

This great growth in Norway paused in 1709 with their entrance into the Great Northern War. This war was fought by the Russians and Denmark-Norway on one side against Sweden for control over the region and the Baltic Sea. Denmark-Norway and Russia won the war in 1720-1721, but Russia truly led the battle and, although Sweden lost power as a result of the war, in a way Denmark-Norway also lost power to the growing empire of Russia.

The rest of the 1700s were quiet as Norway continued their growth and progress. Land ownership grew as did demand for Norwegian goods. The people revisited their past by becoming ship builders, which they exported to numerous European nations. Also during this time education was stressed, a movement that continued into the 1800s as the University of Oslo was founded. However, this progress was again put on hiatus in 1807 when Denmark-Norway joined forces with Napoleon Bonaparte and France.

The Napoleonic Wars led to shipping blockades as Norway was surrounded by war enemies: the United Kingdom and Sweden. The Norwegian economy essentially shut down during this time and the war ended in defeat. As a part of the peace negotiations in 1814, Denmark lost control of Norway, but Sweden took power over the country, keeping the Norwegian people under foreign rule. In this exchange of power, Norway lost all of their overseas territories, including Greenland and Iceland, which fell under the jurisdiction of Denmark.

Union with Sweden

Having gained a very strong sense of identity under Danish rule, the ethnic Norwegians continued their unity and growing identity in 1814 when they immediately demanded independence from Sweden. Despite a loss of rights under Denmark, the people fared well, but being placed under their historic enemy of Sweden made the people uneasy so independence demands began immediately. This led to an elected assembly who wrote a constitution in 1814, creating a constitutional monarchy. This constitution was nominally accepted by Sweden, although independence was not granted at the time. The capital was also moved from Trondheim to the city of Christiania, whose name was changed to Oslo.

Swedish rule continued to upset the people as tensions rose through the 1800s. Sweden also eliminated the nobility and upper class in Norway, unintentionally creating a society dominated by the people themselves as they had no traditional nobility to turn to. Oddly, this led to an increase in political activity among the people. As localized political activity rose, so too did the people's identity and independence movements. In the process the Swedes were used as the antithesis of what it meant to be Norwegian as the simple rural life of the Norwegians became a source of pride and identifying feature of their culture.

This lack of a nobility also meant people had greater movement in the social, political, and economic realms. A weak noble no longer meant a lack of leadership as anyone could rise up, lead, and demand changes. The people's voices also began to be heard; in the past arguing with a noble was generally a lost cause, but now differing opinions were allowed. Although Norway is a Constitutional Monarchy today, this freedom of movement remains an important part of the culture and way of life today.

In addition to the changing Norwegian identity and protests again Sweden, the 1800s were a time of rapid advancements in technology based on the Industrial Revolution and beyond. This movement increased urbanization and factory work, while also creating social rights, workers' rights, and unions. As industry grew so too did healthcare as the population began to rise rapidly, which led to emigration movements, primarily to Minnesota and the Dakotas in the United States. Many of these leaving workers were simply replaced with new technology. Railroads were built throughout the country as communication and infrastructure vastly improved. The modern movement, which today Oslo is somewhat a symbol of, truly began at this time.

Independence & World Wars

Despite the positive changes and improved relations, Sweden still nominally controlled Norway. This union between the two countries finally ended when Sweden granted Norway independence by offering the Danish prince, Carl, the Norwegian crown. He accepted this role and took on the name King Haakon VII of Norway, finally giving the country independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1905. Norway's centuries-long battle for rights and freedom was quickly displayed in the early 1900s; new legislature granted all women the right to vote by 1913 and Norwegians began exploring the world without restriction as Roald Amundsen was the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911.

Unfortunately, World War I broke out shortly after independence and after came the world financial crisis, giving the new nation a struggle in its early years. Norway remained neutral during World War I, but traded extensively with the United Kingdom. Then came the Great Depression and a flailing economy; this led to a number of Norwegian governments being dissolved, a trend that continued into the late 1930s, although the monarchy continued to hold nominal power.

Norway's neutrality continued with World War II, but the Germans invaded Norway in 1940 none-the-less. The Norwegians were quickly taken over with little to no resistance. During much of the war years Norwegian Vidkun Quisling was the Prime Minister of the country as he worked closely with Nazi Germany (although most of the government fled to London). Few people agreed with the German-leaning government as thousands of Norwegians were imprisoned; additionally, most political leaders within the country refused to work with the Germans, essentially shutting down any German political movements in Norway.

After the war, relations throughout Europe improved as economic changes were underway. This was also true in Norway as the economy boomed and little reconstruction was needed since little fighting took place on Norwegian soil. Oslo was also chosen to host the 1952 Winter Olympics, which encouraged new construction and put Norway on the world map.

In the post-war years Norway gave up its neutrality as it became more active in international politics and became quite anti-communist due to Soviet advancements and demands. This also shifted Norwegian political and economic focus to the west, although they rejected membership in the European Economic Community in 1972 (a predecessor to the European Union).

Oil Age & Modern History

In the mid-1960s oil was discovered in the North Sea and this became a huge part of the Norwegian economy, although it also led to sea border disputes. In recent years Norway has also become a leader in social and environmental movements as many people seek to protect the environment in the oil fields as well as inland where dams are being built in large numbers.

Among these social movements, came the establishment of the Sami Parliament in 1989. This parliament gave the Sami greater rights over their lands and greater say in the country as a whole. Many of the issues that led to the formation of this parliament came in the way of protecting their landscape and environment, movements which are still common in the country today from both the Sami and the ethnic Norwegians.

In more recent years the economy has grown, although it struggled greatly in the 1990s. In addition to social and environmental issues, economic issues are at the forefront of Norwegian politics today, especially in the form of the European Union (EU). Norway has rejected European Union membership, although they have become a part of the European Economic Area (free trade zone) and the Schengen Area (same customs area, so there is no need for a passport if a person travels to or from Norway and another Schengen country).

Today Norway continues to progress as they remain a leader on numerous social and environmental issues. They also remain quite independent as they maintain their own currency and are politically removed from the European Union (EU).

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Tags: Norway, history

This page was last updated: August, 2014