BOOK REVIEW: Vox regis: Royal Communication in High Medieval Norway—Review by Benjamin Harrison

David Brégaint. Vox regis: Royal Communication in High Medieval Norway. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016. pp. 420. ISBN 978-9-0043-0508-3

First beginning its life as his doctoral thesis, David Brégaint’s Vox regis: Royal Communication in High Medieval Norway provides an in-depth analysis of communication and propaganda in Norway during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It begins with the first ‘true’ system of communication that the Church officiated on behalf of the Crown, then proceeds to examine how conflicts between Church and monarch led to the development of a new secular model, and charts its development through various forms such as written and ritualistic communication. The overarching claim is that the consolidation of royal control was not a simple top-down process, but an extended interaction between monarch and participant. The comprehensive inspection of all forms of hierarchical communication structures builds a strong, complete picture of how the Norwegian Crown developed its own communication structure by consolidating internal control and forming the foundations of a state.

The work is divided into three core parts, which build upon each other to provide a complete picture of communication in Norway during the period. The first section focuses on the Church’s communication system, specifically in the second half of the twelfth century. This section highlights the crucial importance of the establishment of the diocese of Niðarós in 1152/3, which not only improved the organization of the Church in the country, but provided a platform to promote the literary activity and scholarship of Western European culture in Norway. The text explores this through the new responsibility of clerics for the production and distribution of royal charters, which led to their increased contextual influence. Ultimately, this lead to what Brégaint argues was a ‘political domination’ over the monarchy (p. 32). Furthermore, he examines the Church’s new involvement in the (now religious) konungstekja – a ceremony where a claimant to the throne declared his right and won the support of the populace. The claimant was involved in all trials of ordeal, and all of these took place in Niðarós.

The second part addresses on a new monarchical communication that developed from the time of King Sverrir and his excommunication, stemming from their view of him as a usurper to the throne. The section primarily looks at the texts Sverrir had produced, Grýla and Varnaðarrœða (known in English as A Speech Against the Bishops), both of which were political texts aimed to attack the Church’s authority. Brégaint outlines this as the determining stage of the development of royal communication, and demonstrates how this structure which had previously been exclusive to the Church now were adapted by the Crown, and how it developed into an independent communication with the ultimate goal to further consolidate the royal power. However, Brégaint emphasises that whilst propaganda texts were created in order for Sverrir to legitimise his rule, royal communication was still strongly dependent on his oral skills and transfer – not merely focused on written texts.

Part three is the largest, and impressive section of Vox regis. It investigates royal communication primarily from the period of King Hákon IV Hákonarson until the turn of the fourteenth century. During this time, Brégaint explains, royal communication took on a new purpose: by highlighting the end of the Civil War Era, and how royal power was at its most authoritative point, he illustrates how communication was turned inwards, to re-affirm royal power over the aristocracy. This section is then interlaced with courtly culture and how it was introduced to the king’s liegemen to control how they appeared and acted, as well as specific efforts to change their perceptions and build a strong ideology of subordination.[1] The author excellently demonstrates the use of the written word was used as a tool in this process by the example of two contemporaneous Norwegian texts specifically – namely Hirðskrá and Konungs skuggsjá – as well as translated French courtly romances commonly known as the riddarasögur.

Overall, the greatest strength of Vox regis lies in how it successively builds the development of communication systems in High Middle Age Norway. Its concise structure combines a chronological and thematic approach in order to explain how a specific royal communication structure was built, and how it was instrumental in the formation of the Norwegian state. The continued stressed importance of a model of interaction, rather than a top-down creation, allows the reader to easily grasp the complex evolution and co-existence of all communication structures during this period. I highly recommend the book to a large range of scholars studying not only the titular communication structures, but also Norwegian state formation. Subsections of the book will be found useful for a wider range of scholars, from ecclesiastical history with the Church’s initial monopoly on communications and charters, to those looking at political infrastructure in relation to the thirteenth century hirð reforms. In addition, Brégaint’s prose flows in a beautifully clear and precise manner, and he is able to deconstruct even the most complicated notions in a simple, yet comprehensive manner, making the work a pleasant and accessible read.


Benjamin Harrison, University of Aberdeen


Benjamin Harrison is an MLitt student at the Centre for Scandinavian Studies, University of Aberdeen. His current research investigates the relations between social, political and communicative structures in high-medieval Norway through a case study of the thirteenth century legal codex, Hirðskrá.


Notes

[1] This topic is further explored by Brégaint in his article ‘Civilizing the ‘Viking’: A Pedagogy for Etiquette and Courtly Behaviour in 13th Century Norway’ in Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, 2016, <http://crcv.revues.org/ 13719> [accessed 3rd March 2017].

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