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

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.


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