North Sea Stories: Navigating the Blue Humanities in Norway

This post is re-blogged from Rebecca Tyson’s blog Norman Frontiers.


Course details.

I have just returned from a week-long intensive PhD-level course on the Blue Humanities in Stavanger, Norway and I want to write about the experience, and the ways it made me think about human interactions with water across time and space, while it is still fresh in my mind.

Rather than provide a repeat explanation of what the Blue Humanities is, above is a description of the course and of the Blue Humanities. I also won’t provide a day-by-day account of the course, and instead this blog post will explore some of the thoughts stimulated by my time in Stavanger, and the ways that the course has inspired me to chart new voyages into wider, and more contemporary, Blue Humanities literature. However, Professor Steve Mentz (St. John’s University, New York), who was one of the instructors for the first two days, has written about his own experience here, which will provide some insight into the activities (boardgames which required 2-hours of reading the rules just to set the game up, enthusiastic engagement with Norwegian sauna culture which included swims in the fjord, and of course stimulating scholarly discussions). It was a great week, personally and professionally. These are a few of my thoughts.

I arrived in Stavanger the day before the course started, and I was immediately drawn to the water’s edge where I spent the extra time exploring the eastern side of Hafrsfjord. In (possibly) the year 872 a naval battle took place in Hafrsfjord, which was first recorded by the thirteenth-century Icelandic poet, politician, and historian Snorri Sturluson in the Kings’ saga, Heimskringla. Snorri wrote:

Then the whole army met up to the north of Jaðarr and then make in to Hafrsfjǫrðr. King
Haraldr was already lying there with his army. Then a great battle begins there immediately,
it was both hard and long. But in the end it came about that King Haraldr gained the victory, and there fell King Eiríkr and King Súlki and his brother Jarl Sóti. Þórir haklangr had laid
his ship against King Haraldr’s ship. And Þórir was a great berserk. There was there a
very fierce onslaught before Þórir haklangr fell. Then the whole of his ship was cleared of men.

– Snorri Sturluson, HeimskringlaVolume 1: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason,
Trans. by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes
(London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011), p. 66.

This battle has been credited as the moment of the unification of Norway, when its victor, Harald Fairhair, proclaimed himself the first king of the Norwegians, unifying the numerous smaller kingdoms that had been in the region up to that point.

Sculpture of three 10m-high Viking Age swords commemorating the Battle of Hafrsfjord, on the eastern bank of Hafrsfjord. Installed in 1983.

2022 marks the 1150th anniversary of the Battle of Hafrsfjord, and in June this year several events took place over two weeks commemorating the battle ( In May while I was on my Visiting PhD Research Fellowship at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark (see my blog post, the crew of Helge Ask, the reconstruction of Skuldelev 5, were preparing to take the ship to this anniversary event.

A maritime view of the North Sea World.

I am interested in maritime connectivity and movement in the period around the year 1000 AD, and, along with taking a seaward perspective on medieval sources, reorienting the satellite image on GoogleEarth moves the maritime geography of the North Sea world to the centre, shifting the perspective away from the land and highlighting the ways that the connections between regions and peoples may have been conceptualised in the medieval period.

The fjords of south-western Norway.

By focussing in on different regions within this maritime space, the significance of waterways becomes even more obvious, and the commemoration of the Battle of Hafrsfjord shows that the place of medieval maritime activity is embedded in the foundation narrative of the modern country of Norway. Arne Kruse has drawn attention to the importance of these Viking Age maritime routeways through the placenames found along the western seaboard of Norway (‘On Harbours and Havens: Maritime Strategies in Norway during the Viking Age’ in Viking Encounters: Proceedings of the Eighteenth Viking Congress, Denmark, August 6-12, 2017, ed. by Anne Pedersen and Søren Sindbæk (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2020), pp. 170-85), and highlights the similarities with the way islands were used and named in both western Norway and the western isles of Scotland. The Norwegian fjords clearly provided a means of connectivity with settlements along the fjords and into the interior, which may otherwise have been isolated by the difficulties in traversing the mountainous interior, especially in bad weather.

Helge Ask, the reconstruction of Skuldelev 5, being rowed in Hafrsfjord during the Rikssamlingsjubileet in June 2022.
Photo from Rikssamlingsjubileet Hafrsfjord-Nordvegen 2022 Facebook page.

This is demonstrated in another of Snorri’s accounts, when in the autumn of 1026, following another naval battle, the Battle of Helgeå, King Cnut the Great trapped King Olaf II Haraldsson of Norway and his fleet in the Baltic Sea by blocking the sound between present-day Sweden and the island of Zealand, Denmark. This action forced most of the Norwegians to travel home in the winter on foot which took a long time compared to the journey by sea, which one man in the Norwegian army accomplished as he had made an agreement with King Cnut and was permitted to sail through the blockade (Snorri Sturluson, HeimskringlaVolume 2: Óláfr Haraldsson (The Saint), Trans. by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2014), pp. 194-96).

St. Svithun’s Cathedral, Stavanger. Currently a major restoration project is underway to get the building ready for the 900th anniversary of its foundation in 2025.

Another important North Sea story in Stavanger’s history is the foundation of the cathedral in 1125. The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Swithun, a ninth-century former bishop of Winchester in southern England. In the late tenth century Swithun became the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral and his fame and importance grew from around the year 1000. In the year 1100 a man named Reinald, who most likely came to Stavanger from Winchester, started building the original cathedral and became its first bishop, dedicating his new church to Saint Swithun (and he probably brought the saint’s arm relic with him too). This saint from southern England is also remembered in a road name in central Stavanger. Michael Lapidge (The Cult of Saint Swithun (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) pp. 56-57) has explored the cult of Saint Swithun and the connections between Winchester and Stavanger, highlighting the links between the two religious communities, and other religious foundations in Norway, in the twelfth century which were facilitated through transmarine religious networks. Coincidentally, two days after I was wandering around Stavanger contemplating Saint Swithun and these medieval maritime connections between England and Norway, a new podcast from Gone Medieval was published on Saint Swithun and his cult ( A rather fortunate stroke of serendipity.

Sign for St. Svithuns gate, a street in central Stavanger.

As a medievalist and maritime historian (though, one of the many things I took away from the week spent with the inspirational Professor Ellen Arnold was that I think I relate more to the term ‘water historian’) I visit places, at home and abroad, looking for the water and how medieval people used, thought about, and interacted with the local coast/river/harbour etc and the places these connected them to. Like many medieval historians, I’m looking for the lived experience of these watery environments. One of the most tangible connections to these lived experiences is through the objects used by people in the past and then left behind. The Blue Humanities course took us out of the classroom on Wednesday to visit some of the museums in Stavanger, starting with the Maritime Museum. The Maritime Museum occupies a beautiful building on the harbour front (actually 6 buildings spread over 3 late medieval merchants’ premises and linked together in a labyrinthine series of corridors and staircases), which is the museum’s most precious asset. The water would have come right up to the buildings originally, allowing merchant vessels to unload directly into the storehouses. On the top floor a sail loft overlooks the harbour, and the floors below contained different exhibits and reconstructed rooms reflecting the harbour’s commercial activities over the last couple of centuries.

Ceiling supports in the Maritime Museum which reminded me of ship’s knees (used in boatbuilding), probably indicating that boatbuilders also worked on these late medieval buildings on Stavanger’s harbour front.

My one recurring criticism of this fascinating category of museum is that they invariably fail to show, or even do more than provide cursory acknowledgement of, any maritime history prior to the activities of the Hanseatic League in the fifteenth century or often even the Age of Sail from the seventeenth century onwards. Stavanger’s maritime museum was no different, despite a tantalising, but brief, reference to nearby Avaldsnes, which has been described by the eminent Norwegian archaeologist Dagfinn Skre as ‘a sea-kings’ manor’ (Avaldsnes- a Sea-Kings’ Manor in First-Millennium Western Scandinavia, ed. by Dagfinn Skre (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018)). To avoid this post becoming an in-depth historiographical study of the scholarship on maritime activity in south-western Norway in the Viking Age let us just leave it at I think the Stavanger Maritime Museum missed an opportunity to highlight the region’s maritime significance further back into the first millennium AD (and beyond).
However, due to the excellent links between the University of Stavanger and the Maritime Museum, the PhD group were tasked to choose exhibits within the Maritime Museum and to rewrite their object texts from our Blue Humanities perspectives which we would then present to the curator later in the week. My contribution is below, and I attempted to address several things in a single paragraph: firstly, pottery is only boring if you talk about it in a boring way; secondly, the pottery didn’t move itself across the North Sea; thirdly, the ‘medieval period’ (arguably) covers 1,000 years from 500AD-1500AD and I think museums should be specific in their dating of medieval objects.

The objects from the Maritime Museum that I chose to rewrite the text for in one of the course exercises.

In the feedback session with the curator I was very interested when she said that the Maritime Museum’s remit was to cover the maritime history of Stavanger from the Reformation onwards, and that the Museum of Archaeology in Stavanger would cover the earlier history. I had visited the Museum of Archaeology already and I knew that there wasn’t any display of this earlier maritime history, so I asked if there had ever been any meetings between the two museums regarding how each would represent the history of the town. The answer was no, there hadn’t. This exercise has given me a greater insight into some of the questions museums have to contend with about how and what stories to tell.

The Viking Voyagers Exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology.

I visited the Museum of Archaeology in Stavanger, though it wasn’t one of the suggested museums to visit, which in itself was interesting and one of several instances during the week where I felt that the Blue Humanities field is, at present, largely the contemporary Blue Humanities, and at a push the Modern Blue Humanities in a historical sense. The Museum of Archaeology currently has an exhibition called Viking Voyagers, which explores the provenance of a selection of objects and postulates how they may have found their way into Viking Age burials in Norway. The exhibition was consciously outward looking, from Norway across the North Sea to maritime neighbours in Ireland (book/horse mounts refashioned into brooches in Norway), Scotland (penannular brooches), England (jet beads), and the Netherlands (fabric used for clothing). I was particularly interested to see a gilded silver brooch from tenth-century Carolingian Francia.

Objects in a burial from Litle Eige, Eigersund, south of Stavanger on the coast of south-western Norway. Object 1 is the tenth-century Carolingian silver brooch.

Normandy in northern France was a duchy within Carolingian Francia (for simplicity’s sake I refer to all the tenth and eleventh-century Norman rulers as dukes, though see Robert Helmerichs, ‘Princeps, Comes, Dux Normannorum: Early Rollonid Designators and their Significance’, in Haskins Society Journal, 9 (1997) 57-77 for a scholarly examination of the titles used by the early Norman rulers). In the early tenth century a Scandinavian leader called Rollo was granted land between the River Epte and the sea, probably as a way to stop other viking groups repeatedly plundering the Frankish interior using the river network (see Christian Cooijmans, Monarchs and Hydrarchs: The Conceptual Development of Viking Activity across the Frankish Realm (c. 750-940) (London: Routledge, 2021) for an examination of the scale of these attacks).

Writing c. 1015 Dudo of Saint-Quentin wrote the first (and official) history of the Normans which recounted Rollo’s pagan past and his exploits around the North Sea Zone, including time spent in Denmark, England, and the Low Countries (see Benjamin Pohl, Dudo of Saint-Quentin’s Historia Normannorum: Tradition, Innovation and Memory (Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2015)). Dudo’s text was developed by William of Jumièges, writing c. 1050-70, who adapted the text and made additions of his own, including the first recorded story of (Ragnar) Lothbrok and Björn Ironside (see Elisabeth van Houts, ‘Scandinavian influence in Norman literature of the eleventh century’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 6 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1983), 107-21 (pp. 113-17)).

William of Jumièges also provided an account of the exploits of Olaf, king of Norway (1015-28) and later Saint Olaf, during his youth spent raiding in Francia, where William of Jumiéges is the only non-Scandinavian source for this period in Olaf’s life. A contemporary Scandinavian source for this same account comes from Sigvatr Þorðarson, an oral poet or ‘skald’ from Iceland who composed Old Norse praise poetry at Olaf’s court from c. 1015. Both Olaf and Sigvatr have been credited with a direct connection to Rouen, the principal city in early eleventh-century Normandy, as Sigvatr says that he had been to Rouen himself in the 1020s (see Sigvatr Þorðarson, ‘Víkingararvísur’, ed. by Judith Jesch, in Diana Whaley (ed) Poetry from The Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c.1035 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012), p. 532-33), and William of Jumièges states that Olaf came to Normandy at the request of Duke Richard II to provide military assistance to the duke in 1013-14 and that he was baptised in Rouen by the duke’s brother, Archbishop Robert; a significant distinction for Rouen when Olaf was canonised in Norway only one year after his death in 1030 (see Elisabeth van Houts (ed). The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Torigni, Oxford Medieval Texts, Vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 24-27).

A model Viking longship and a relic of St. Olaf, patron saint of Norway, in Rouen Cathedral. Donated by the bishop of Oslo in 2014 to commemorate 1,000 years since St. Olaf’s baptism in Rouen Cathedral. Photo taken during my cycling trip around Normandy in February this year (see

I had all these North Sea stories in my mind while I was standing in front of the case with the silver brooch from Carolingian Francia, thinking about the literary, artistic, cultural, economic, and political connections these objects reflected, yet they are placed here without this fascinating context. All we learn from the text in the case is that it is ‘a round, gilded silver brooch with plant decoration’, and all the stories from the world in which it was made are erased. It is just an object, as if objects don’t hold meaning for either us or their original owners. I felt surprisingly sad that other visitors to this exhibition wouldn’t know these stories. I never thought of myself as a storyteller, but the course last week had a heavy literary focus and now I am looking at these North Sea narratives and I feel that they need to be woven throughout my own thesis. I need to be an historian and a storyteller, and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

Norse kings of Dublin and the Battle of Hafrsfjord display in the Viking Voyagers exhibition.

Returning to local waters again, another interesting display in the Viking Voyagers exhibition was on the possible involvement of Norse kings of Dublin in the Battle of Hafrsfjord. This is all very conjectural, and is based on the close association with the Norse kings of Dublin to the Scandinavian world and the names ‘Laithlind’ and ‘Lochlann’ in Irish sources, which the panel suggests may be names for this part of Norway. I found it fascinating that the exhibition curator dedicated a considerable amount of space to this complex subject, which was explored in only three paragraphs of text. There is probably a PhD thesis for someone in exploring these questions so it was a bold move, and I certainly left the exhibition feeling that they had done a good job in highlighting Norway’s maritime connections to the west. Sadly, those same connections with the east and the south were, however, entirely missing. Museums are not just the custodians of objects, they also have the power to decide which stories are told.

Cover of the 60th anniversary edition of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

I have focussed on the objects, seascapes, and sources in this exploration of my thoughts on the Blue Humanities PhD course, which reflects my training and background (and, lets be honest, also preferences) as an archaeologist and medievalist. However, on the course, only Ellen, myself, and another PhD were medievalists, with sixteen other PhDs and speakers coming from contemporary studies, or significantly more modern periods of study, which meant that during the week, I actually spent the vast majority of the time thinking about the Blue Humanities from those points of view. Yet, I felt that I gained a great deal by expanding my horizons into the literature and theoretical considerations of post-colonial, feminist, and more-than-human approaches. A discussion with a fellow PhD working on modern-day sardinella fishers in Senegal has introduced me to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and his ideas of national conscious, which I look forward to reading to broaden my perspective on the works of Dudo of Saint-Quentin and William of Jumièges. One of the set readings for the course was Barbara Watson Andaya’s ‘Seas, Oceans, and Cosmologies in Southeast Asia’ which, along with the in-class discussion with Professor Aike Rots (University of Oslo), has given me so much to think about regarding the place of spirituality along the coast of eleventh-century Normandy. I am not by any means suggesting that eleventh-century Normandy and modern Vietnam are the same, but by looking at these places, which are so far apart in time and space, in different ways to the traditional makes me ask different questions and see new answers. That is really exciting.

Abstract from Andaya’s 2017 article.

I found the Blue Humanities PhD course at the University of Stavanger to be a welcoming, stimulating, and fun experience. The other PhDs were all lovely, inspirational people who are doing such important work, I am excited to see what they do in the coming months and years. All the speakers were generous with their time and thoughts, and Ellen made us all very welcome in Stavanger and came up with a really great programme.

Thank you very much to the Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol and to the NoRs-EH/The Greenhouse at the University of Stavanger for funding towards my attendance on this course. It is very gratefully appreciated.

Yellow boat naust, Hafrsfjord, Stavanger.

Rebecca Tyson is a PhD student in History at the University of Bristol. Rebecca’s blog Norman Frontiers can be found here.

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