Home » 2014 » February

Monthly Archives: February 2014


Yet another hogback

Yet another hogback

This hogback is located in the churchyard of St Boniface’s Chapel on Westray. The tegulation and lowered height illustrates that this hogback shares a lot in common with later coped grave covers.


The Miracles of Saint Olaf of Norway: An interdisciplinary approach. Part 4

Conclusion- The Further Adventures of Saint Olaf

The Church of St. Clements, where Saint Olaf was finally translated to, was rebuilt by a later successor to the Norwegian throne, Olaf Kyrre.  A stone building replaced the second Church of St. Clements.  In the modern cathedral the foundations of this stone edifice are traced in stone.  They correspond with the line of the middle aisle of the chancel and the inner part of the octagon (Beckett 271).  The ashes of St. Olaf would rest on the High altar for five hundred years, gaining more and more rich trappings. 


Figure 1. Statuette of St Olaf on display in Þjóðminjasafn Íslands.


During this time St. Olaf would develop a far reaching cult in northern Europe.  Niðaros would become a major pilgrimage point in the medieval world, causing it to further expand.  The Norwegian Church utilized the presence of a Norwegian acknowledged saint by consolidating their power from that of Archbishopric in Hamburg-Bremen. During the Reformation in the sixteenth century the altar goods associated with St. Olaf’s reliquary were sent to Denmark [the kingdoms were joined y this time].  The ashes themselves remained on the altar.  During transit to Denmark the majority of the rich altar goods were lost at sea, while the rest were stolen by bandits on the land.  In 1564 invading Swedes translated the ashes to the small Swedish church at Skatval.  St. Olaf’s remains only remained there until 1565, however, before they were reacquired by the Norwegians and returned to the Cathedral where it was placed in a brick vault.  A later Danish king ordered the vault to be filled up, and now modernly no one is exactly certain where St. Olaf’s ashes are.  The closest anyone’s guess is in or near the church built in his honor.

The miracles of Saint Olaf bear a remarkable resemblance to miracles of other saints of his era- a fact touched upon by recent research. However, because of the applicable areas of preservation, and their correlation to the places acknowledged as being associated with St. Olaf, much more information than is discussed in the medieval sources is available.  There are many pieces of information discovered during the research of this work that absolutely require presence in the region to give closer classification to the archaeological material.


Works Cited

Beckett, S. 1915.  The Fjords and Folk of Norway.  London: Methuen and Company.

Bridges, E.M. 1975.  World Soils, second edition. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Foth, H. and Schafer, J. 1980. Soil Geography and Land Use.  New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Lindow, J. Scandinavian 123:Spr. ’04. lecture notes.

Oftedahl, Chr. 1980.  Geology of Norway. Trondheim: Universitetsforlaget.

Sylte, T. 1966.  The Rivers of Norway.  Oslo: Dreyers Forlag.

Sturluson, Snorri, arr. Jonsson, F. 1925. Heimskringla.

The Miracles of Saint Olaf of Norway: An interdisciplinary approach. Part 3

Part 3 of discussion on the miracles of St Olaf of Norway. 


The Birth of the Saint and Death of the Man

Olaf the Stout’s forces met an army of bonders loyal to Knutr the Great at the farm of Stikklestað on July 29, 1030.  As stated earlier Olaf was awoken to arrive at the battle field and it was soon apparent that Olaf had significantly less forces than the bonders.  The fighting soon became hand to hand and Olaf became directly involved.  The first wound that Olaf received was an axe wielded by Thorstein Knaresmed to the left leg above the knee.  The second wound received was Thore Hund’s spear in the belly.  The death wound to Olaf was a sword to the left side of neck wielded by one of two Kalfs (Sturluson 402-3).

Please note that all of the wounds were received on the left side of Olaf’s body, the sinistre side.  This may be a manipulation of the event’s facts by clerics to reflect the negative connotations of the left side.  This, in turn, is a reflection of a primate trend of right-handedness that there is even neurological evidence for.  However, similar circumstances would have also occurred if all of Olaf’s attackers were right handed.  The wounds are also presented in order of severity.  The style of this episode reflects a theme of overwhelming of God’s servant, as befitting the meaningful martyrdom and birth of a saint.  Later Snorri would say that Olaf had died at age thirty-five, remarkably close to the age that Jesus was upon his death.  The extreme detail given concerning the wounds reflects the Norse saga-style, and its legal usage and meanings.  This pertains to an older Germanic legal tradition concerning woundings, killings, and compensation.

With the death of Olaf the Man St. Olaf is born, and with him even stronger, presented, signs of sanctity.

Miracles of Saint Olaf

The first miracle of St. Olaf following his birth occurred as Thore Hund, the spear wielder in St. Olaf’s birth, got some of Olaf’s blood into his wounded hand from his spear.  The wounded hand was claimed to have been healed by the holy saint’s blood.  This is, of course, a direct correlation with the holy blood of Jesus, said to be able to heal the world of its wounds.  The most obvious explanation is that the wound was only Olaf’s blood that had spilt onto Thore’s hand.  This event was probably reinterpreted by the Church in order to better support Olaf’s sanctity.

Following the end of the battle, which would have lasted until sundown at around 11:30, the owner of the Stikklestad farm itself, a man loyal to Olaf collected the saint’s body from where it lay. This movement of a saint is known as a translation.  Thorgils Halmsson and Grim Thorgilsson collected the body and took it to an empty outhouse.  Here they cleaned the body with water and wrapped it in linen.  The father/son team then hid the body under a pile of firewood and returned to their farm for the night.  The treatment of the body exhibits the influence of medieval Christian burial practices.  In both of the first miracles source authors are careful to mention that Olaf’s body is still lively looking, with reddened cheeks.  Please keep in mind that these sources are all written by later clerical writers and so are probably exhibiting that influence.

Saint Olaf’s third miracle, that of the Blind man, is considered to be a major sign of his sanctity.  It occurs after Thorgils and his son Grim have prepared the body and hidden it under a wood pile, but before the further translation back to Niðaros.  The blind man, a beggar, had wandered into the abandoned house for shelter for the night. 

Hann kendi fyrir hondunum, at tjorn var á gólfinu; þá tók hann upp hendinni vátri ok rétti upp hottin, ok kómu fingrnir upp við                 augun; en þegar brá kláða á hvarmana svá miklum, at hann strauk með fingrunum vátum augun sjálf; síðan hopaði hann út ór             húsinu ok sagði, at þar mátti ekki liggja inni, þvíat þar var alt vátt.  Ok er hann kom út ór húsinu, þá sá hann þegar fyrst skil                 handa sinna ok alt þat, er nær honum var, þat er hann máttiá sjá fyrir náttmyrkri (Sturluson 408).  [He knew what was before his           hands, that damp[?] was the floor; then his hands discovered water and reached up a little bit, and brought his fingers up to his           eyes; but there brought two men clothes between them, then he scratched with his fingers water into his own eyes; afterwards             he ran out of the house and said, that there was no use staying within there, because it was all wet within.  And when he came             out of the house, then saw he there first his hands before him and all that, which was near him, that which he could see in the               night-darkness.]

This scene equates the spilled blood of Saint Olaf with the blood of Jesus, an obvious inclusion of Church influence.  This, as stated before, is a popular miracle, one of the reasons being that the delicate eye organ itself would not be better understood until the invention of the microscope, the other that most people are unable to dream of a world without sight.  In Glækonskviða, stanza 8, this miracle is referenced in much less detail, although it is discussing the same event.

Þar kømr her                            [There comes the army

Er heilagr er                             whose leader is

Konungr sjálfr                         the king himself

krypr at gangi                          crouching to walk

En beiðendr                             and searching

Blíndir søkia                            a blind {man} seeks

Þjoðar máls                              the suit of the people

En þaðan heilir.                       Who is thence called.]

Here there is no mention of wet floors, and clean saintly corpses under woodpiles but because there is a blindman included we are assumed to already know the story. 

Obviously, a hut that cures the blind is no place to keep a body hidden so Thorgils and Grim were forced to translate the body once more to a more secure location.  This proves to be difficult because of the saintly stigma of light that follows the body.  Once the farmers reached the river Thorgils used a large rowboat, with the real coffin under the footboards, to row to Niðaros.  I received the impression here that the two were moving more than just the body of the saint in a plain coffin and a fake coffin.  They may have concealed themselves with a larger procession in the hopes to keep the saint safe, although this is not specifically mentioned in any source material.  Once in Niðaros Thorgils had the archbishop summoned.  This was quite a move on the part of Thorgils, for Archbishop Sigurdr had been appointed by Knutr the Great, not Olaf II.  Olaf’s bishop had been previously banished in England.  Bishop Sigurdr carried the fake coffin in his ship  to the harbor of Niðaros where he then proceeded to dump the fake coffin in the water.  Thus it was publicly made known that the King was dead to his enemies, but still believed to be alive by his supporters.  This may be a referral to Olaf I Tryggvason who converted many Norwegians to Christianity, but was not made a saint because of his ignoble suicide in battle by jumping overboard.  

Once the fake coffin had been dumped Thorgils and Grim moved further up the Nið River with the real body to an abandoned farm at Saurlið, a point above Niðaros.  This was dusk of the third day following the birth of Saint Olaf, August 1, 1030.  They held the body in the abandoned farmhouse until the night of the fourth day, August 2.  “Síðan fluttu þeir Þorgils líkit upp með ánni ok grófu þar niðr á sandmel þeim, er þar verðr;  bjoggu þar um eptir, svá at ekki skyldi þar nyvirki á sjá” [Afterwards they flew to where Thorgils knew a place up the river and they made a pit down in the sandbank, where it was fitting] (Ibid. 410).  Their task accomplished, the two then returned to the farm at Stikklestað.

This is where all of the previous discussion of Norwegian soils comes into relevance, these were either spodosols, and thus acidic, or entisols with low organic content.  Neither soil would have been truly stable, especially with a river so close by.  This will be useful later.

St. Olaf apparently slept relatively quietly for the next twelve months or so.  During this time Bishop Sigurdr was recalled and Olaf’s former bishop, an Englishman named Grimkell, was reinstated as Archbishop in Niðaros.  Once this knowledge was widely known the farmer Thorgils made contact and disclosed the information of the healings, and the location of the body to the Archbishop.  Grimkell, without delay, went up the river with the King’s skald Einarr þambarskelfi and the usual pack of Norse thugs, to where the body should be and discovered that coffin had been moving, apparently of its own volition. This discovery was made, the body translated back to Niðaros, all marvelously executed by Grimkell and Einarr “[. . .]líki konungs” (413).  The mere fact that it was being written about centuries later proved to be evidence of their success.  Even the chapter of Heimskringla entitled Tekinn upp heilagr dómr Oláfs konungs– Taking up the holy kingdom of Olaf the King, shows proof of Einarr and Grimkell’s Barnum-like success.

Once the body was removed from the sand bank a holy spring was said to have welled up.  This spring was to further develop the developing Cult of Saint Olaf with healings.  Another example of this occurring in the Catholic Church would probably be the spring at Lourdes, France. 

The King’s coffin was carried to a church, but Snorre tells us that at the spot on the river bank where his body had been buried a lovely spring gushed forth, whose waters cured people of their sickness.  The spring is still there, only a stone throw’s from the Niðaros cathedral, the loveliest church in Scandinavia. (Sylte 36)

By the time that the Niðaros cathedral was planned the cult of Saint Olaf was firmly established, so it is not surprising that the Cathedral would be relatively close to a holy area associated with its patron saint.

The healing waters of the spring may have occurred simply because it was an unpolluted water source.  Another possibility for its mere presence, let alone curative properties, is that it is the end result of a local watershed drainage system for the local area.  However, more conclusive evidence would require a drainage map, unpublished in the United States at this time, to discern.

The heart of Trøndelag in saga times was Niðaros, the town built at the Nið River. It was founded by Olav Trygvason just before the year 1000 AD, and has many features in common with the most important towns he got to know on viking raids to the countries of the West.  The towns that made most impression on him must have been Dublin and London, both built on mighty rivers and both moulded by their rivers.  This was true of Niðaros- or Trondheim, as it is called today.  It would be no exaggeration, perhaps, to claim that the Nid is in many ways the most historical river in Norway. (Ibid. 35)

In Niðaros was a church dedicated to Saint Clement, which had first been built by Olaf Tryggvasson.  Upon Tryggvasson’s death at the Battle of Svolder in 1000 CE the original church was destroyed.  When Olaf the Stout assumed the throne one of his many good acts towards the Church was to rebuild, and rededicate this church to Saint Clement twenty years after its destruction (Beckett 268).  Grimkell had the remains “[. . .] disinterred, enclosed in a silver casket and deposited in Saint Clement’s Chapel” (Ibid.).  So his mortal remains were brought to the church and opened.

Following the birth of Saint Olaf  at the Battle of Stikklestaðr, one of his assailants,  Thore Hund, the recipient of the first of the true Saint’s miracles, had noted that even at death the king had been remarkably lively looking, with reddened cheeks.  He was likened to someone who was asleep.  If Olaf had been a pale-skinned man, as many of the northern latitudes are, this may have appeared to be true.  Without actual skin cells of the saint it is difficult to determine how much melanin was actually present, and thus determine a skin tone.

This knowledge, that Olaf had appeared to live after death, would have made his keepers all the more anxious to see it themselves.  When the coffin was open the first thing that was noticed was that there was no foul smell of decay.  This is something that a people without refrigerators no doubt would have been very conscious of.  The second was that Olaf’s hair and nails had appeared to continue growing beyond his death.  This is another of Olaf’s major miracles and is discussed in several sources.  In the fifth stanza of Glækonskviða it is mentioned most simply.

Þar sva at hrein                                    [There thus the lord

með heilo ligr                                      with good omen

lofsæll gramr                                       praise-fortunate king

liki sino                                                like himelf

ok þar kná                                           and there can

sem a kviacom manne                         same as living men

hár ok negl                                          the hair and nails

honom vaxa.                                        Of him grow.]

However, the historians bane and boon, Snorri Sturluson also discusses this subject in his Heimskringla.

Olaf konung, þá er hann fell, at síðan hafði vaxit hár and negl, því næst sem þá myndi, ef hann hefði lífs verit hér í heimi alla þá stund síðan er hann fell.  Þá gekk til at sjá líkama Olafs konungs Sveinn konungr ok allir hofðingjar þeir, er þar váru. [Olaf the King, whenhe fell, after he fell, afterwards had growing hair and nails, nearly as much as they would, if he had lived to lead his army back to that stand where he fell.  At this point King Sveinn came to see the body of King Olaf and all of his cheiftains, where they were.] (415)

The most likely cause of the body’s preservation was noted concurrent to the events by Olaf’s widowed queen, Alfifu.  She noted that men buried in sand would keep better.  In a cool climate this is quite true, provided there is decent drainage.  In fact cool sand was used as a well known way to store root vegetables prior to canning and refrigeration.  So essentially, by burying the tightly wrapped dead king in the sand bank, Thorgils and Grim placed him in a naturally occurring refrigerator.  As stated earlier, acidic soils rarely effect interred items for as short a duration as a year.  If the coffin were made of new sawn lumber then, by being buried relatively quickly, the boards would retain some of their new appearance, by lack of oxidation.  Bad smells due to working stomach acids would have been kept to a minimum due to the tightly wrapped bandages.  There would have been no room for expanding gases to move.

Grimkell trimmed the hair and nails, arranged the body in a more pleasing manner.  The trimmed personal effects he placed into a consecrated fire, where they did not burn.  Christian consecration of fire generally involves the addition of incense, at this time probably a fragrant resin burned in largish chunks.  Grimkell may have possibly strategically placed the hair and nails so as they wouldn’t burn.  The heavy incense would have covered the acrid smell of any of the hair burning and insulated the items from the direct heat of the coals. 

Once Saint Olaf is established at Saint Clements various minor miracles, such as healings of the lame and blind, candles spontaneously lighting, and the sounds of bells all around the body.  These are all common signs of medieval sanctity and can quite easily be attributed to the influence of clerics in the writing down of this information.  Some may have even been developed by the Church itself in order to continue control of its parishioners.  The body was dug up every year for over a century following the birth of Saint Olaf in order to view the signs of sanctity.  By the time the Eysteinn Erlendsson becomes the Great Archbishop of Niðaros this practice is ceased and the body cremated, probably because Olaf was no longer so springtime fresh.  The ashes were placed in reliquary on the High Altar in the Niðaros Cathedral.

Works Cited

Beckett, S. 1915.  The Fjords and Folk of Norway.  London: Methuen and Company.

Bridges, E.M. 1975.  World Soils, second edition. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Foth, H. and Schafer, J. 1980. Soil Geography and Land Use.  New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Lindow, J. Scandinavian 123:Spr. ’04. lecture notes.

Oftedahl, Chr. 1980.  Geology of Norway. Trondheim: Universitetsforlaget.

Sylte, T. 1966.  The Rivers of Norway.  Oslo: Dreyers Forlag.

Sturluson, Snorri, arr. Jonsson, F. 1925. Heimskringla.

The Miracles of Saint Olaf of Norway: An interdisciplinary approach. Part 2

This is the second part of the series on the Miracles of St Olaf.

Olaf the Man and King

“Oláfr var snimma gørviligr maðr, friðr synum, meðalmaðr á vaxt; vitr var hann ok snimma ok orðsnjallr.” [Olaf was early a capable man, handsome in appearance, middling in height; and good with words at a young age] (Sturluson, ed. Jonsson 182).  The first description of Olaf follows to style traditions; that of Norse sagas and the afore-mentioned Church influence.  Snorri goes on to describe Olaf II as being nicknamed Olaf the Stout or Thick.  He was known as a stingy, greedy man in life, neither a good thing in the hospitality consciencous Norse’s eyes nor in terms of showing living signs of sanctity.

During his early years, age twelve, his mother sends him on a Viking voyage.  From this inauspicious beginning, Olaf Haraldsson ends up a-viking in Sweden and England, against Knutr the Great, his future rival in Norway.  Following his kidnapping of the Hlaðir jarl Hákon, Olaf persuaded the local Assembly members to declare him king at the Gula Þing [1015].  By 1018 Olaf was king over Norway proper.  After this point, according to the sagas, Olaf spent the next thirteen years converting the Norwegian people.  This is information to be wary of because of the known conversion activities of Olaf I Tryggvasson, who’s saga immediately precedes that of Saint Olaf in Snorri’s Heimskringla (Lindow, Scand 123: Spr ’04, lecture 6).  From legal records, modern researchers know that Olaf II aided the establishment of the Church in Norway by enacting a tithe law that effectively established the well-known parish system in the land.  This would eventually establish another system of acknowledgement and taxes.  In terms of being an effective Norse monarch, creating laws and other legal involvement is a sign status and strength.  The fact that the monies were to be collected specifically for the purpose of being given to the Church did not hurt the saintly image either.

Unfortunately, for Olaf II, Knutr the Great of the Danelaw held imperialistic notions on Norway and by 1028 had effectively exiled Olaf Haraldsson from Norway.  This was done by a series of battles and Knutr’s subversion of the voting bonder farmers of local assemblies.  Olaf spent the time in the East, Sweden and Russia.  During this time he gathered his forces and made an attempt for his throne again in 1030.  This would ultimately culminate with the Battle of Stikklestaðr July 29, 1030, where the Olaf the man, called the Stout, died and Olaf the Saint, called the Holy, was born.

The Living Miracles of St. Olaf

Although not officially recognized by Snorri, one of Olaf’s first miracles, attributed to him during his lifetime, is given in Chapter 165 of Heimskringla.  In this chapter is related the story of Egil and Tove who foolishly freed some of Olaf’s prisoners in an act of pity, thus incurring the wrath of the King.  During this long period of time, Egil gets sick, literally “[. . . ] Egill var sjúkr [Egil was ill] and Olaf refuses to see him (Sturluson 349).  After  some time, and many people imploring upon him, Olaf visits Egil.  During this visit Olaf lays his hand upon the pained side of Egil and says a prayer.  Egil is instantly healed, no surprise.  This miracle maybe be explained by a simple stress caused ulcer.  If Egil were someone who was under stress, and he probably was by unwittingly committing an act of treason, his body may have responded with an overproduction of stomach acid that eventually would have eaten into mucous lining of his stomach.  As for the miraculous cure that Egil experienced, this may have been due to the psychosomatic effects associated with his relief.  If the king has accepted Egil back into the fold then there is no reason for his stomach to produce excessive acid.

The first miracle that Snorri acknowledges happening in Heimskringla occurs while Olaf is in forced exile in Russia.  In this episode a boy with a boil on his neck is presented before Olaf.  He requests that Olaf heal him of his affliction, which Olaf ultimately accomplishes by making the sign of the cross over a piece of bread which he has the boy swallow while he prays.  This episode especially shows the influence of the Church on actual events.  Perhaps the greatest signal of this involvement comes from the ritual Olaf used to cure the Russian lad, a version of the Eucharist ritual.  The easiest signal is consecrated piece of bread.  As for the actual cure, this is difficult to tell without knowing the exact nature of the boil.  If it were an inflamed tonsil and a really, really hard crust of bread perhaps something might have happened, but this is only speculation.  The entire episode exhibits the common medieval theme of a Christ figure healing the sick with pseudo-Church ritual.

Once Olaf had collected troops, as previously mentioned, he began a march back to Norway from Russia, via Sweden, his ally.  As his troops passed through various regions Olaf restrained his troops from ruining fields and thus upsetting the local populace, which could potentially do real harm to an army on the move, and a king trying to reclaim his throne.  Unfortunately in the Værdal District Olaf’s troops trample a field flat, thus ruining a farmer’s crop of corn [not maize, but rather, wheat or barley].  Olaf rides around the farmer’s field and tells him that God will repair the situation in a week.  He then stays [dvalðisk] the night with the farmer and his two sons.  Sure enough the corn is restored even better than before.  It is literally “[. . .] ok varð þat inn bezti akr, sem konungr sagði” [and was that the best field] (Sturluson 385). As a result the malcontented farmer and his large sons join Olaf’s march.  In true Norse style Olaf has seemingly restored peace and prosperity to the land after the devastation of battle.

Olaf’s sanctity is mentioned by the “forced” growing of the corn, which is notable only because Olaf had mentioned that, essentially, god would provide.  Sanctity was implied because the corn grew up better that before.  However, there are many things to consider with this particular miracle.  The first is the growing conditions of Norway.  According to Foth and Schafer, the majority of Norway has a growing season of less than ninety days and is too wet for agriculture 50% of the time.  This would have restricted farmers of the tenth and eleventh century to such crops as roots and quick growing, cool weather crops such as flax, barley, and rye [the latter two being known as korn in Old Norse].  Hay would have supported an animal industry of dairy and beef cattle, and pigs [the infamous fe] (418).  The corn of this saga was something that would have put on a significant amount of growth during a week.  The increased light because of the latitude probably would have accelerated this process.  Another factor is the “lawn mower concept” for lack of a better name.  Essentially, because the roots are still producing enough nutrients to supply more length, the damaged areas are able to rejuvenate that much faster.  This may also have been a field on an early plaggept.  As mentioned earlier the inclusion of the animal manure into the soil [humus] helps to neutralize the acidic spodosols and boost agricultural production.

Visions prior to the Battle of Stikklestaðr, and Olaf’s death, occur occasionally through Olafs saga helga, and are generally signified the chapter title “Draumr Olaf konungr” [the dream of Olaf the king].  Some tell Olaf the make certain decisions or to perform certain actions, and all are heavily laden with the afore-mentionChurch influence.  In example, the dream immediately prior to the Battle of Stikklestaðr [Olaf had to be awoken from it to go to the battle field] is presented as Olaf ascending a ladder and was awoken just before leaving the last rung behind and entering heaven.  This ladder may be an allusion to the Biblical Jacob’s ladder, a popular medieval theme.  The dream itself suggests that Olaf is subconsciously thinking like a saint, and is thus a sign of sanctity.   However, the context of the dream, especially the fact that Olaf had  to be awoken from it in order to arrive on the field of battle in a timely fashion bears a striking resemblance to the pre-Christian Macedonian king Alexander III, styled the Great.  This may be an example of the influence of past heroes rediscovered in Muslim sources, or even that Olaf was just a heavy sleeper.

The miracles prior to the birth of St. Olaf are presented in a manner to appear as to gain in intensity the closer to his martyrdom.  This may be a stylistic inclusion  by clerical writers to control Olaf’s being called by God.  

Works Cited

Beckett, S. 1915.  The Fjords and Folk of Norway.  London: Methuen and Company.

Bridges, E.M. 1975.  World Soils, second edition. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Foth, H. and Schafer, J. 1980. Soil Geography and Land Use.  New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Lindow, J. Scandinavian 123:Spr. ’04. lecture notes.

Oftedahl, Chr. 1980.  Geology of Norway. Trondheim: Universitetsforlaget.

Sylte, T. 1966.  The Rivers of Norway.  Oslo: Dreyers Forlag.

Sturluson, Snorri, arr. Jonsson, F. 1925. Heimskringla.

The Miracles of Saint Olaf of Norway: An interdisciplinary approach. Part 1

This is the first post in a series of some work I did on St Olaf before becoming more involved in the medieval archaeology of the north Atlantic. For those that are interested I’ve since discovered St Magnus of Orkney who is much more involved with what I do.

Anyways on with the show, right?


Olaf the Second of Norway, called the Thick, the Stout, and later Saint, only fully reigned in Norway from 1018 to 1028.  However, after his death at the Battle of Stikklestaðr July 29, 1030, he was officially canonized as a saint by the Medieval Church in response to his developing cult in Northern Europe.  This cult would remain with strong support until the Scandinavian Reformation of the early sixteenth century, when the monarchs of Scandinavian countries assumed leaderships of their countries’ churches. Olaf II was recognized as a saint for a series of acknowledged miracles.  Many of these miracles can be discussed in a more worldly manner via a more interdisciplinary approach.  By looking at more than just texts it is possible  to gain a better understanding of the era associated with Olaf II’s reign.

Medieval sources available on the subject of Saint Olaf include Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla [specifically Olafs saga helge] and Separate saga, and the poems Glælognskviða and Erfidrápa Oláfs helga.  As with any source concerning tenth and eleventh century Scandinavia the sources we have are written by clerically trained authors of the thirteenth century.  Perhaps one of the greatest problems with this gap between event and recording is the muddling of facts, whether due to exaggeration or human forgetfulness.  Special consideration must be taken when using these sources in general.  However, as Olaf was canonized a saint by the Church researchers must be especially wary of clerics wanting to make the saint, and in this case, king, appear even more saintly.  This influence of the Church on vernacular writings helps to illustrate the strength of the Medieval Church within the Scandinavian lands and perhaps is best illustrated by the preferential wordage used in the Holy sagas.  This must be kept in mind especially when discussing Olaf’s Living Miracles, those attributed during his lifetime.

Archaeological Conditions

The conditions of preservation in Norway, in general, have produced some of the best  preserved specimens know to modern archaeologists, prime examples being the Gokstad and Oseberg ship burials.  However, in order to better understand how a number of St. Olaf’s miracles may have occurred an understanding of how these conditions of preservation developed is necessary.

The climate of Norway, like that of any region in the world, is directly in association with its geography.  Evidence of extreme tectonic action and successive Ice Age glaciers have resulted in Norway’s characteristics fjords on the coast.  The extremes in elevation that have resulted from these geologic pressures have caused climate including regular orographic precipitation.  Orographic precipitation occurs when water-laden clouds, such as those found over the ocean, are pushed by local winds against land masses.  In order for the clouds to climb high enough to move past these obstacles they must lighten their load by raining out excess water.  Norway annually receives more than 1,000 millimeters a year of precipitation do in no small part of this phenomenon.  In terms of preservation, iron exposed to the elements, as opposed to dense, anaerobic mud, would quickly oxidize away.

The constant cloud cover, rugged mountainous landscape, and presence, still, of glaciers give Norway, on an annual basis rather cool temperatures.  These temperatures have helped the soils of Norway, for the most part to stay young, that is underdeveloped.  Underdeveloped soils are typified with little mineral alteration and little to no horizon differentiation [sorting].  As a result underdeveloped soils can be quite acidic, such as Norway, based on the parent material.  Acidic soils are quite detrimental to preservation given time, especially to items of softer material like bone and wood.  Metallic materials, in this circumstances are generally those that are used to determine whether there was human activity in the area or not. 

The landscape of Norway, with little erosion on its mountains and fjords that would result in broad alluvial plains, contributes in its own way to the cool temperatures.  The bedrock closest to the surface is frequently calcareous which further slows the rate of acidification and clay movement. There are ground earth surfaces typical of areas that have been reshaped by glaciers.  The glaciers, too, keep the ground so cold as to further hinder soil development.  Like yeast, soils, too, need to have a certain temperature in order to develop properly.

The parent materials of the Trondeheim region associated with St. Olaf are primarily of the cryic great groups associated with mountain soils.  One group, the Gula Group running along the entire 300 km length of the Trondheim Region, contains such rock formations as “mica schists, metagreywackes, various kinds of gneisses, amphibolites and occasional layers of quartzite, quartzite conglomerate, crystalline limestone and minor altered ultra basic bodies” (Oftedahl 53). The resulting soils range from acidic spodosols to entisols to histosols.  Spodosols are typified by water and wind reworked sands and spodic horizons “[. . . ] of free sesquioxides and/or organic carbon but not with equivalent amounts of crystalline clay” (Bridges 40).  They are found on rolling landscapes of hills and steep mountains with an elevation extending beyond 500 meters [Scandinavia only] (Foth and Schafer 418). Entisols occur in coastal areas and river valleys.  They can be recognized by sandy beaches and dunes that are wind and water sorted.  These sands are low in total clay, silt and coarse fragment presence.  They are the direct result of redeposit ional processes.  Histosols are scattered in the lowlands and between hill depressions in Norway.  In general, histosols are found where the decomposition of organic matter in soil is inhibited by a variety of reasons.  Some causes include climate, human activity, soil conditions, and overall topography (Foth and Schafer 427). According to Foth and Schafer sandy parent materials are acid because they are low in fertilizer and water holding capacity.  As a result of this Norway modernly remains forested.  Because of early cultivation and overgrazing, probably well into the Middle Ages, an invasion of heath has developed.  Heath accelerates the podzolization process resulting in very acid and nutrient deficient soil.  The B horizon is often rich in humus [organic material] and iron that can become cemented thus restricting soil drainage (419).

Human activity, when compared to most areas of continental Europe, is rather light in Norway.  Approximately 3% of Norway’s total land is arable because of the extreme ruggedness of the land.  In those few areas of concentrated human settlement are plaggepts.  Plaggepts result from the long practice of spreading accumulated animal manure over local acidic spodosols.  These actions result in raised sections of growing area and excessive plant growth in comparison to the rest of the region.

All evidence points to a major presence of acidic soils over the majority of Norway.  However, in part due to the cool temperatures that keep Norway’s soils acidic and the calcareous nature of the bedrocks nearest the surface, the soils are not well integrated.  This results in significant patches of soils more suitable for preservation of artifacts.  When goods are buried in acidic soils, or soils with acidic plants, however, their preservation is most affected by the surrounding acidity and the duration of interment.  Goods buried for less than three years should not normally gain significant damage from acidic soils.  However, once they have been buried for longer than seven to ten years the goods will begin to rapidly deteriorate to the point of disintegration.  Without firsthand experience with the region in question, more conclusive evidence cannot be derived.

Works Cited

Beckett, S. 1915.  The Fjords and Folk of Norway.  London: Methuen and Company.

Bridges, E.M. 1975.  World Soils, second edition. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Foth, H. and Schafer, J. 1980. Soil Geography and Land Use.  New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Lindow, J. Scandinavian 123:Spr. ’04. lecture notes.

Oftedahl, Chr. 1980.  Geology of Norway. Trondheim: Universitetsforlaget.

Sylte, T. 1966.  The Rivers of Norway.  Oslo: Dreyers Forlag.

Sturluson, Snorri, arr. Jonsson, F. 1925. Heimskringla.

The Hogback as a Sculptural Style

The hogback, as modern researchers know it, derived from a variety of sources the two most influential being Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian, in origin. As with most early sculpture, very few have been noted has having any specific date, and so most of the monuments discussed are only broadly datable to within fifty years or so.  Anglo-Saxon recumbent monuments developed in the pre-Viking Age, i.e. prior to circa AD 800 essentially, although some Viking activities were occurring shortly before.  There are several types of these which have been intensively studied in the past.  The earliest of these are widely accepted to be carved Grave Slabs.  These slabs are carved upon one face, the earliest and later ones of the series, bearing a super-imposed cross which effectively broke the field of the slab face into panels.  Regional differences in the decorations can occur, however, as can be seen by a portion of the recumbent monuments found at York Minster which can exhibit quite zoomorphic decorative motifs (Lang, 1988: 12).

Related to the Grave Slabs which are carved upon one face is the more transitional form of the Coped Slab.  This form, with a shallow roof pitch and low plinth, survives well into the Romanesque Period.  This shape appears to function as a tomb-lid when considered in its original placement, a definitive door between the living aspects of humanity and the dead (Lang 1988: 13).  Coped Cover Slabs, as mentioned, survived well into the Romanesque Period, becoming especially widespread in Scotland after the twelfth century.  In Scotland, however, the Coped Cover Slab appears to have developed directly from the Plain House Type of hogback.

Hogbacks are perhaps the closest, stylistically, to the form of shrine tombs.  Shrine Tombs, found not only in the Anglo-Saxon world but also in the earlier Celtic Christian population, were built most often for prominent members of the Church and/or saints themselves.  Those constructed as saint’s tombs would often have some form of external access to the interior, so that the faithful would be able to touch the saint’s relics.  Those of Northern England tend to follow one of two stylistic motifs.  The first group exhibit motifs which, in combination, give the skeuomorphic effect of a metal reliquary.  The second group consist of solid stone carved into a house shape with a pitched roof.  One of the best known examples of this style of shrine tomb would be the Hedda Stone which now found in Petersborough Cathedral in Cambridgeshire (Lang 1988:13).  The Hedda Stone has been used fairly frequently as a reference in hogback publications in the past because of its skeuomorphic properties which is also a primary feature of hogbacks, as we shall see.

The stylistic feature which is most important to the study, and classification, of hogbacks is the one which gives the corpus of material their name.  Hogbacks are named for their distinctive hog-backed ridge line, best viewed from the side of the three-dimensional piece of sculpture.  This curved ridge line as well as the bombé ground plans are the two strongest reflections of contemporary building styles (Bailey 1996).

The basic hogback shape is a skeuomorph of the Germanic longhouse known to the earlier Anglo-Saxons, as evidenced via the pre-Viking recumbent funerary monument style sequence described earlier, as well as incoming Hiberno-Norse and Danish of the Viking Age (Hamerow, 2004).  Some hogbacks are also decorated with carved representations of shingles, known as tegulation, which have their own regional differences as to the shape and amount of rows used.


Figure 1 Plain Type hogback from Conyer’s Chapel, Sockburn, North Yorkshire. Note the tegulation carved into the sides.

With the hogback one is able to directly view aspects of changing patronage as related to the cultural fusion created with the arrival of the Hiberno-Norse in the tenth century.  The new aristocracy in Northern Yorkshire brought with them new tastes in motifs utilized in pictorial representation, the majority of these being carvings (Bailey, 1996).  Anglian York was home to several sculptors whose, prior to the Hiberno- Norse arrival; primary patrons were the local monastic orders.  This occurred at other urban locations as well, sculptors deriving motifs from other local artisans.  This co-existence and dependence of the visual arts points to an earlier era where common design principles and mythology caused works of various media to not yet be the discrete entities they are today (Bailey, 1996).

J.T. Lang, who has written the majority of the modern works on hogbacks, gives a basic typology for the variety of hogback styles found in Northern England, the ones discussed here being the ones most pertinent to the region (Lang, 1972).  The earliest in his typology are those of the Panel Type which has distinctive end beasts, as well as panels of scroll and interlace ornamentation.  The best known examples of hogbacks such as these are the ones found in Brompton, in Northern Yorkshire.  Evolving stylistically from the Panel Type of hogback is the Pilaster Type.  Pilaster Type hogbacks have raised decorative panels, the end beasts, which were quite large in the Panel Type, are degenerating in size and execution becoming more stylized and less naturalistic through time (Lang, 1972).


Figure 2 Conceptual diagram of hogback types to help the reader understand the stylistic typology easier.  


Related to the Pilaster Type is the Niche Type of hogback is named after the semicircular niches found on their sides.  Instead of tegulation on the upper pitches there are panels of interlace (Lang, 1972).  The arched motif is suggestive of the access apertures of the earlier Anglian and Celtic saints’ shrine tombs which allowed pilgrims to touch the relics of the saints in veneration (Bailey, 1996).  Directly evolved from this style is the Extended Niche Type where the niche itself is more elongate while the end-beasts are smaller.  The horizontal panel bears surmounted ornamentation instead of interlace (Lang, 1972).  The Illustrative Type which bears carving of figures and narrative scenes under its eaves, is closely related to both the Niche and Extended Niche Types, yet does not appear to be directly derived from either. 


Figure 3 Illustrative hogback from Conyer’s Chapel, Sockburn, North Yorkshire.

Hogbacks of the Scroll Type, found in the Northwest of England and portions of Yorkshire, serves as an intermediate between hogbacks of symbolic shape and those of house shape.  The sides are quite steep with a fairly narrow section.  Decorative panels are reduced to horizontal strips.  Hogbacks of house shape do not have the distinctive end-beasts found on the earliest Panel Type hogbacks of the Brompton region.  The earlier Plain House Type hogbacks closely resemble long houses; their decorations consist primarily of skeuomorphs of architectural features such as shingling.  The Plain House Type becomes most common is Scotland where it eventually degenerates in height to become the Coped Grave- Cover of the Romanesque Period, which was mentioned previously as an earlier Anglian development (Lang, 1972).  This re-adoption of styles in Medieval British sculpture is one of the challenges of its study.  In Eastern Yorkshire the influence of zoomorphic motifs causes the Enriched House Type of hogback to develop.  The basic house shape of the Enriched House Type of hogback was embellished with both zoomorphic and more abstract elements (Lang, 1972).



Bailey, R. 1980. Viking Age Sculpture in Northern England. London: Collins.

Bailey, R. 1996. England’s Earliest Sculptors.  Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Collingswood, W. 1907. ‘Anglian and Anglo-Danish sculpture in the North Riding of Yorkshire’ Yorkshire Archaeological J. XIX pp. 267-413.

Collingswood, W. 1911. ‘ Anglian and Anglo-Danish sculpture in the East Riding, with an addenda to the North Riding’ Yorkshire Archaeological J. XXI pp. 254-302.

Collingswood, W. 1915. ‘ Anglian and Anglo-Danish sculpture in the West Riding, with an addenda to the North and East Ridings and York, and a general review of the early Christian monuments of Yorkshire’ Yorkshire Archaeological J. XXIII pp. 129-299.

Collingswood, W. 1927. Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age.  London: Faber and Gwer.

Cramp, R. 1984. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture in England I & II. Oxford: Oxford University Press for The British Academy.

Ellis Davidson, H. 1950. ‘Gods & Heroes in Stone’ Fox and Dickens, eds. The Early Cultures of North-West Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  pp. 123-139.

Hamerow, H. 2004. Early Medieval Settlements: the archaeology of Rural Communities in North- Western Europe 400-900. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hodges, C. 1905. VCH Durham I.  London: Archibald Constable and Co. pp. 210-41.

Knowles, W. 1905. ‘SockburnChurch’ Trans. A. & A. Soc. Durham & Northumberland V pp.99- 103.

Lang, J. 1972. ‘Illustrative Carving of the Viking Period at Sockburn-on-Tees’ Archaeologia Aeliana 50. pp.235-248.

Lang, J. 1974. ‘Hogback monuments in Scotland’ Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot. 105 pp. 206-235.

Lang, J. 1976. ‘The Sculptors of the Nunburnholme Cross’ Archaeol. J.  133 pp.75-94.

Lang, J. (ed.) 1978. Anglo-Saxon and Viking Age Sculpture and its context.  BAR British Series 49. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Lang, J. 1984. ‘The Hogback’ Studies in Anglo-Saxon Archaeology and History III.

Lang, J. 1988. Anglo-Saxon Sculpture. Aylesbury: Shire Publications.

Lindow, J. 2001. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, H, and J. Taylor. 1965. Anglo-Saxon Architecture II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Earlier project completed