Kungamakten och lagen. En jämförelse mellan Danmark, Norge och Sverige under högmedeltiden (Kingship and Law: A Comparison between Denmark, Norway and Sweden in the High Middle Ages)—Review by Beñat Elortza Larrea

Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, Kungamakten och lagen. En jämförelse mellan Danmark, Norge och Sverige under högmedeltiden (Historiska institutionen, Stockholms universitet: Stockholm, 2014), pp. 458. ISBN: 978-91-7447-936-2.

Kungamakten och lagen is Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist´s doctoral thesis, and its main aim is to provide a comparative analysis of the expansion of the king´s powers, as regulated by law, in the Scandinavian kingdoms between the mid-twelfth and mid-fourteenth centuries. In order to present a comparative overview, the author examines five areas of expansion of royal power in five different chapters. Each chapter covers a specific theme: the medieval Scandinavian laws; the administration of justice; the king and military power; the king and the regional legal assembly; and the relationship between Crown and Church, respectively; and a comparison between Denmark, Norway and Sweden is presented in each chapter in order to highlight the similarities and differences found in Scandinavia. The thesis thus showcases how provincial and “national” laws reflect the expansion of royal authority during the state formation process, and Charpentier Ljungqvist argues that a clear development towards institutionalisation, hierarchisation and territorialisation can be identified. The introductory chapter presents the aim of the thesis, the theoretical framework, a review of relevant scholarship, and particularly highlights the lack of comparative studies from a Scandinavian perspective.

The second chapter deals with the medieval Scandinavian laws. These laws are a good example of an expansion of royal power between the mid-twelfth and mid-fourteenth centuries, as regional customary law was replaced by a more centralised legislation with clear inspirations from Roman and canon law. The section also highlights the heterogeneous and often problematic nature of the legal sources: the differences between regional laws are notable, since the oldest versions of these laws are often reliant on the oral legal tradition and customary law, while later laws are more abstract and have a more systematic structure, thus suggesting a more literate judicial culture. This new judicial culture can also be found in the national legislation enacted in Scandinavia from the mid-thirteenth century onwards. In addition to  this chapter focused on the medieval Scandinavian laws, the appendices of the book also contain a comprehensive list of all the legal sources used throughout the thesis.

The third section investigates the administration of justice, the king´s right to prosecute individuals and the judicial, legislative, and executive power held by the king. Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, the Crown in all three Scandinavian realms expanded its power in the judicial sphere, with a greater institutionalisation of the judiciary and an increasing right to collect fines. Charpentier Ljunqvist, however, highlights the differences between the three countries. In Norway, royal control over the judicial system was very strong: the king had extensive rights to collect fines and confiscate property, and was the supreme temporal judge by the thirteenth century. The Danish king seems to have had similar claims to fines and land confiscations, but his role as a judge was hindered by the ecclesiastical and lay aristocracy until the establishment of the royal court, or retterting. In Sweden, on the other hand, the king had a relatively weaker claim to fines and confiscations, and also had a special royal court, called kungaräfst. Once the judicial power of the king had been established, legislative power was also further developed; much like in the case of judicial power, there were limitations to the king´s legislative power in Denmark and Sweden, but there were no such hindrances in the case of Norway. Executive power, manifested in the form of executing punishments, can be properly discerned in Scandinavia from the thirteenth century onwards. The author argues that judicial competences were established first, legislative power later, and finally executive power. It appears, however, that the priority of the Crown was primarily to take over new judicial and legislative roles.

The relationship between the king and the existing military institutions is examined next. While there were similar military institutions in all three Scandinavian countries – a naval levy, a coastguard, a home guard, the royal retinue and the nobility´s cavalry forces – the author limits the research to the naval levy, known as ledung in Swedish, since this institution is the only one that is consistently regulated by the laws. There are three aspects that the author compares: the military service with the naval levy, the taxation system derived from the same institution, and the monopolisation of the use of military force by the king. There is a general shift from a preponderance of military service to permanent ledung taxation, but this shift is less pronounced in Norway, where the naval levy was regularly used as an armed force by the king. While the royal control of military resources is strongest in Norway, where the king could appoint the steersman of the ledung ship freely and freemen had the obligation to possess weapons, the creation of a tax-exempt nobility is weaker in Norway than it is in Denmark and Sweden. In Denmark, the concentration of military resources was opposed by the nobility; moreover, there is no law-regulated ledung in Denmark during this period, and the position of steersman was hereditary, while the selection of steersmen was a royal prerogative in Norway and Sweden.

The fifth chapter studies the power relations between the king and the regional assemblies. The provincial laws reflect a contractual relationship between the king and the people, but the nature of this relationship became increasingly vertical in character throughout this period. Older types of conflict settlement such as feuding were restricted and outlawed, and the king introduced and expanded the crimes of lèse-majesté. The king used the expansion of lèse-majesté in order to strengthen his position and eliminate potential opposition. The main difference found in the king´s relationship with the assemblies is his position over or under the law. While the earliest Danish provincial laws were not explicit, the Danish king´s position under the law was established through the coronation charters of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries; the case is the same in Sweden, where the king is clearly subjected to the law through the law of the realm of 1350. In Norway, however, the king solidified his position above the law through the law of the realm of 1274.

The sixth section deals with the relationship between the Crown and the Church. Law texts suggest that in Denmark and Norway the lay and ecclesiastical authorities were parallel and equal in power, while in Sweden the Church was subordinated to the king´s power. Royal succession was only strongly influenced by the Church in Norway. Although the Church´s position was strongest in Denmark, breaches of ecclesiastical law were regulated in the regional laws in Norway and Sweden, but not in Denmark. All three countries include tax exemptions for holders of ecclesiastical offices, who are also allowed to collect honour fines, but the footing of the archbishops is equal to the king in Denmark and to a duke in Norway and Sweden. Charpentier Ljunqvist highlights the fact that, while the Danish Church had the strongest law-regulated position, the lack of ecclesiastical law in the Danish regional law meant that the king could not collect fines or intervene in breaches of ecclesiastical law.

Charpentier Ljungqvist provides a concise and well-rounded overview of the development of royal power in Scandinavia from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. By dividing different aspects of royal power thematically, the intertwined processes are explored in depth and help understand the bigger picture. Moreover, the thematic approach makes the comparisons between the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish kingdoms much clearer, since each chapter contains a comparative analysis at the end. The thesis deals with a relatively long timeframe and a very large geographical area, but the author provides appendices covering the geographical boundaries of each realm, case-studies of provincial laws and their dating, and a complete list of the laws used in the thesis and regnal and archiepiscopal lists for all three countries, which helps the reader find their way through the research project. This thesis is an exceptionally exhaustive research project that not only delves into the manifestations of royal power that are found in Scandinavia during the state formation process, but also provides a comparative Scandinavian overview that is seldom achieved in academia and is very much needed.

Beñat Elortza Larrea

Beñat Elortza Larrea is a PhD Candidate in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Aberdeen, UK. His current research project is based on a comparative approach to the military and political developments in medieval Scandinavia.