- Norwegian farm culture
The Norwegian farm culture (Norwegian: bondekultur) was a rural movement unique in values and practices which assumed a form in Viking Age Norway, and continued with little change into the age of firearms - and in many respects even to the early 20th century. It has been described as unique[by whom?] in Europe and was widely celebrated in Norwegian literature during the romantic nationalist movement.
One important strain of national feeling in Norway was Norwegian patriotism, a movement which began and was most influential in the 18th century and emphasised everyday rural-life and traditions, in contrast to the more idealistic romantic nationalism. It emphasised Norwegian farmers as bearers of Viking traditions, and as the original settlers of the land. The poets from late 18th century Norway based their style on contemporary pastoral poetry, and classic ideals, where the rural shepherd could be simultaneously depicted in typical Norwegian dress, but still have him blowing his "Arcadian clarion". At the same time, the farmer and the Norwegian mountains became symbols of national strength and pride. Areas such as Gudbrandsdalen became popular travel destinations because of their historical importance and reputation as rural heartlands, where many locals claimed ancestry from the Norse kings. The first well-known poetry written in rural dialect originated in these parts in the late 18th century. The patriotic era in Norway lasted until about 1830. In the following years, romantic nationalism slowly emerged.
The Romantic Nationalist view
The Norwegian romantic national movement set forth from about 1840, believing that the cultural basis for Norway was to be found in the farm culture. This culture had over the years blossomed in its own right, scarcely known outside the limits of the rural districts. It showed itself in the art of storytelling, legends, fairy-tales, in a rich decorative style, "rosemaling", woodcarving, silversmithing and folk-music, both on the Hardanger fiddle and the regular violin. Added to this came a great number of songs and tunes from medieval times, and the dances. While the patriots considered Gudbrandsdalen the heart of Norway, the romantic nationalists were drawn to Telemark as the center of rural culture. Here they found the greatest folk-musicians and the venerable tradition of medieval ballads best preserved.
It has been stated that the cultural consciousness among the Norwegian farmers was high, and that they did not always welcome the tax collectors as the years passed. The culture was rich, more so in the way that each valley had their distinct varieties and modifications. Outsider were often impressed, and said so.
On the other hand, the urbanists could show a kind of superior attitude towards this culture. It was, after all, raw and had to be refined before "national" usage. Thus, they did not always appreciate the value of the farm culture in its own right. The farmers understood this, and answered with a kind of forced contempt against the urbane. This created a "cultural breach" between city and rural community. Many poets, among them Henrik Wergeland and Henrik Ibsen understood this, and criticized the romantic nationalists for not taking the farmers’ culture seriously. Those who made the best efforts on collecting and writing down the rural culture were those that came from "within". They knew the codes, and had the farmers’ trust.
A strongly egalitarian approach characterizes this Norwegian cultural view, resisting any who would put themselves in a position of superiority. This results in a consensus oriented and issue oriented approach to problems and an unwritten law to stress social equality and emphasize fairness for all. It has also been characterized less favorably by Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose as the Jante Law (Norwegian Janteloven), which requires a rural environment to survive.
Thomas Hylland Eriksen, himself is of urban stock, provides a modern perspective on Norwegian nationalism: “With no powerful city bourgeoisie and no strong landed gentry, burgeoning Norwegian nationalism took on a different character from that of the European countries in the 19th century. It was emphatically rural and egalitarian in its orientation, and it trended to glorify the simple ways of life of the countryside rather than revel in urban grandeur of the military pride of the state… The irony of this invention of nationhood is the fact that those individuals who most strongly promoted the idea of Norwegianness as a rural form of life, were themselves urban and highly educated people – their daily life was very far removed from that of the simple peasants who they defined as the carriers of national identity.”
A Historic Basis
Norwegian property laws, so ancient that the time of their enactment is lost, govern Norwegian property transfer. This property system worked to preserve the Norwegian farm and contributed to the independence and relative equality the Norwegians maintained, even during periods of Danish and Swedish suzerainty.
The Gulating lawtext is in many aspects written by the farmers themselves. The juridical text states a common "we", who make their own agreements with their king and their nobility. Thus, the law states that the king can call out a leidang "because we find it useful". The historian Kåre Lunden argues that a farming community with such self esteem, would find it proper to execute the king himself if he went against their common interests, as they actually did at the Battle of Stiklestad. Snorre Sturlason mentions that King Håkon I of Norway had to rule with the support of the farmers, as the same farmers made a point of going against him if he pressed certain matters further at the ting (the case in question was Christianity).
The Gulating law also stipulates that the farmers will abstain from "beating up the parsons" for the future (meaning they have done it before). Norwegian history tells of a number of unlucky country priests falling victim to angry farmers. Thus, only the strongest candidates were willing to leave for the rural areas. Kåre Lunden makes a point of this attitude, compared to the french medieval farmer stock, who willingly gave up their freedom for the monasteries.
Norway was never a feudal country, with serfdom never existing; the scattered population, mountainous areas and lack of established communities did not support a centralized feudal order. While Denmark attempted to impose the “vertical” feudal order, with accompanying authoritarian roles and responsibilities, such efforts had in Norway limited success. During the Union Period, Denmark gradually established over-lordship of Norway, which for military purposes and in the eyes of the world made Denmark-Norway one united realm. Not only was the central government located in Copenhagen, but virtually all local officials in Norway were Danes. Official business was conducted in Danish, although the common language remained Norwegian. But this over-lordship remained formal, and external to the people's everyday life. When the governors and sheriffs attempted conducting in Norway the oppressive practices and virtual slavery that were common in Denmark, they encountered firm resistance and vigorous protests from the Norwegian self-owning farmers.
The farmers had kept their independence including the use of local assemblies known as the Thing, and lived by their old Norse code of law up until 1685. It was at that time that the Danish King Christian V revised Norwegian property laws. The laws of Magnus Lagabøte had by then been practiced for 400 years. After this judicial code, the farmers saw the king as a guarantor for their rights, and were equal to the king in the old sense that the king or the king's men was obliged to hold their pledges towards them (social contract). However, this did not bother the Danish sheriffs, and the farmers answered the broken pledges by killing the sheriff - a recurring incident during the early days of the union. The honor of a given word was deeply rooted in the farmer’s conscience, long into the 19th century. Sources from the 18th century mentions a number of incidents where the farmers refused to acknowledge Danish law in Norway, and referring to "ancient rights" during court hearings.
Significantly, the Norwegian military was based on the farmers, and Norwegian farmers were known to be good soldiers in that era, and more warlike than the Danish. Thus, Norway saw a long list of peasant revolts, often against the heavy tax-burden of the Dano-Norwegian state, and against foreign armies. An army of farmers thus beat and annihilated a troop of Scottish mercenaries in the Battle of Kringen in 1612, during the Kalmar War. This episode magnified the general opinion of Norwegian peasantry. The warlike behavior also resulted in many brawls, fights and local feuds between farms, clans and valleys. An old schoolteacher stated that he in his lifetime (about 1727) had experienced as many as 30 manslaughters in his own community, Hol in Hallingdal, over perhaps 40 years. Various sources support this pugnacious nature; many of the stories of fights and fighters were handed down as heroic legends in folk-tradition, sung as songs, and connected to dance-tunes. The legends derived from this particular time, often tell of proud resistance towards the authorities, and a kind of Viking persistence facing death. Those legends value a good punchline in the nick of time, in some cases given in front of the executioner´s block. Even today we can find a kind of mock-feud between central valleys, and still occasional brawling between youths from different landscapes and counties.
In the 1660s and 1670s, a large amount of crown land in Norway was sold to liquidate war debts, mostly to rich burghers, officials and nobles. The bonder who had worked this land now found themselves renter from a far more oppressive class than their former landlord, the crown. These new landowners introduced oppressive rent practices designed to reduce the bonder to virtual serfdom as was then common in Denmark. Statholder Gyldenløve, interested in forestalling the serious troubles arising, urged the King to curb the greed of the landowners, and is quoted by Knut Gjerset as stating "In Norway, the government differs so much from that of other lands that there it consists of the farmer, and is maintained by them… The prosperity of the farmers is the main thing, the root and basis for the preservation of the whole kingdom."
In 1684-1695, regulations were published that capped the rates of rent charged and limited the amount of "free service" rendered by the bonded farmers. When a farm was leased, it had to be leased with all its conveniences to the leaseholder for his lifetime, the rent established by unchangeable mutual contract, and fixed prices established for the products with which the farmer paid his rent.
In those years, the farmers gathered time and again, struggling for their inherited rights. Strikes against war taxes were common, notably in the mountain areas. Thus, Upper Hallingdal revolted in 1713, while parts of Telemark revolted some years later, both incidents related to the great nordic war. It is known that farmers at the time held their own rights over the rights of the king, and did not acnowledge the union laws. Some of those men argued persistently for their cause.
As the news of the French Revolution spread, the most educated farmers assembled their people and strove for democracy and common rights. Some of these joined sides with religious reformer Hans Nielsen Hauge, and fought for farmers’ rights in the Constitutional Assembly.
The last uprising prior to the "farmer`s parliament" from 1836 took place in 1818, once again because of high taxes and hard times. As usual, the farmers wanted to send a petition straight to the king (Carl Johan). The parliament sent troops, and about 300 men from Hallingdal, Valdres and Hedmark was escorted to Christiania, under suspicion of rebellion. Their letter for the king and parliament was never to be delivered, but the tax burden eased for a time afterwards. One has to note that the men in power reacted as would the Danish before them, even four years after the constitutional assembly.
The first generation of farmers born after 1814 counted many personalities willing to test their intellectual strength in the new-born democracy. Thus we find many self-taught farmers, who in time became a valuable source for information when the folklorists arrived in the 1850s. Many of these men wrote their information down, and worked as local teachers. In one case, a farmer from Telemark, Rikard Aslaksson Berge, even ventured to teach himself German and Theology. He welcomed Ivar Aasen, and was a valuable source for preserving old traditional music and lore in his area. Other farmers who thought in the same manner, were among those elected for the famous "Farmers' Parliament" of 1835. It is fair to say that the Norwegian farmers in general were self-aware and independent, very unlike their feudal counterparts in central Europe.
Known farmer rebellions
- 1501: Knut Alvsson uprising. Most of Southern Norway.
- 1540: Hun-revenge (hunehemndi). Setesdal and parts of Telemark.
- 1713: Tax strike during the Great Nordic War (Hallingdal).
- 1720: Protests against hiring of soldiers.
- 1787: Christian Lofthus uprising (Agder and Telemark).
- 1818: Halvor Hoel uprising.
After 1820, political channels have been used.
Culture and counter-culture
The farm culture as such had to be preserved through idealism as years turned, and new music and other impulses reached Norway during the 20th century. Folk music in Norway and the nynorsk were symbols of Norwegian counter-culture for many years.
When radio broadcasting was started in Norway, the broadcasting company soon got their own folk music programme, and as this was welcomed in the rural areas (people gathered in silence each Sunday evening at the home of the one farmer with a radio), the folk music was resented in the urban areas. The tensions were great, and many angry readers protested the efforts of bringing hardanger fiddle into their homes. People in Oslo as a rule neither liked nor understood the music. The protests also resulted in casting stones through the windows of Eivind Groven, who was responsible for the folk music programs.
On the other area, Nynorsk, debates went on for many years, and had to be silenced through political agreement as late as 1959. Prejudice, mostly against Nynorsk prevailed for many years, and are still a prominent feature amongst teenagers in Oslo. The right-wing parties still are trying to get votes from young people using this argument.
The farm culture developed then into a strong political counter-culture, with a lot of different branches, like the layman-movement, the fight against alcohol, the fight for rural dialect and nynorsk, the fight for folk music and rural culture, and of course, the lasting fight against centralism. Norway's political landscape is based on the balance between the capital or city and districts.
Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, described its characteristics in a book published in 1796 as, “The distribution of landed property into small farms produces a degree of equality which I have seldom seen elsewhere; and the rich being all merchants, who are obliged to divide their personal fortune amongst their children, the boys always receiving twice as much as the girls, property has met no chance of accumulating till overgrowing wealth destroys the balance of liberty.
You will be surprised to hear me talk of liberty; yet the Norwegians appear to me to be the most free community I have ever observed.
The mayor of each town or district, and the judges in the country, exercise an authority almost patriarchal. They can do much good, but little harm, as every individual can appeal from their judgment; and as they may always be forced to give a reason for their conduct, it is generally regulated by prudence. 'They have not time to learn to be tyrants,' said a gentleman to me, with whom I discussed the subject.
The farmers not fearing to be turned out of their farms, should they displease a man in power, and having no vote to be commanded at an election for a mock representative, are a manly race; for not being obliged to submit to any debasing tenure in order to live, or advance themselves in the world, they act with an independent spirit. I never yet have heard of anything like domineering or oppression, excepting such as has arisen from natural causes. The freedom the people enjoy may, perhaps, render them a little litigious, and subject them to the impositions of cunning practitioners of the law; but the authority of office is bounded, and the emoluments of it do not destroy its utility.
Last year a man who had abused his power was cashiered, on the representation of the people to the bailiff of the district.”
Relationship to Norway's aristocracy
While under Danish rule up until 1814 there was distinct difference in classes, it was not based on wealth. Below the Norway’s aristocracy, was the non-noble bourgeoisie, composed of professional men, officials, clergy, wealthy merchants, a few industrialists. At its high point in the 18th Century, it was composed of less than fifty thousand people. Many were descendants of Danish immigrants in the 17th Century and the others had been educated in Denmark. They read foreign books, were culturally tied to Denmark, and spoke Dano-Norwegian or book language. Nonetheless, most were Norwegian in loyalty, sentiment and interests.
The farmers and politics
The farmers made a strong opposition in the Norwegian Storting from 1835 and forwards. After some years, they got a reputation for making investments difficult. It was well known that the farmers owned most of the country's real estate, and thus, also the resources. As time went on, the farmers and the growing bourgeois communities clashed in the parliament several times. The farmer's opposition, as it was called, was in many cases unwilling to pay the expenses in the gradual building of the nation.
After the breakthrough for parliamentarism in 1884, the farmers joined the liberal left-wing party under Johan Sverdrup. Here they remained for many years, sometimes breaking out and joining again in the tumultuous history of the party. From 1920 the farmers made their own political party in Norway, called the Farmer's Party (Norwegian: Bondepartiet) later Centre Party (Norwegian: Senterpartiet). The party and their name lost goodwill during the 1930s, because of the ill-reputed government of 1931 with Vidkun Quisling acting as a secretary of defence, representing Bondepartiet in the government.
After the crash of 1929, many farmers lost their properties, and a crisis-plan was established. In this, the newly formed Nasjonal Samling (NS) party played a role, and many farmers in gratitude voted, or joined the NS the following years. As the tides turned during the 1930s, the farmers got out of the NS, mostly because they didn't need them anymore. Some of the most wealthy farmers stayed on. This turned out to be a problem for them as World War II came to Norway. In recent years, some historians accuse the entire farmer community in Norway for being sympathetic to the NS. That is not, strictly speaking, true. Although some of the greatest landowners in Eastern Norway and Gudbrandsdalen was on the inside, this was not the case in other areas. Vinje and upper Telemark was reputedly free from NS influence, and the party never found support there.
After the war, it has been the goal of both the Norwegian right-wing party Høyre and the Labour party, who took power in 1935 and kept it almost ever since, to reduce the number of farms in Norway. The Labour party wanted space and manpower for industry, and rather wanted people to join their affiliated unions than possibly favouring other parties. Høyre wanted to get rid of the farmers because of an ancient grudge, dating back to the 19th century. The Norwegian property laws became a hindrance for free trade, and so were the farmers, they claimed.
When the tensions rose in Norway because of the EEC, later the EU, Norwegian farmers positioned themselves with the strong No-block, and with support from other left-wing groups, they stopped Norway from joining the union twice. This is also a reason for right-wing grudges against the farm culture.
Today, many Norwegian farms and farmers struggle to make much money due to the globalisation of the food market. Most Norwegian farmers produce their goods, mostly food, for the sake of their own, and continue and old tradition of "self-preserving". This philosophy has been strong in Norway at all times. They are, of course, sceptical of the WTO agreements, and instead wish to join sides with the farmers of developing countries rather than be aligned to farmers in the USA. As Norway is considered a modern industrialized country, this is somewhat difficult to explain. The explanation may lie in the fact that Norway is still a small country with a small market, and no threat to anyone. The farmers claim that free trade would kill off the entire agriculture of Norway, as they would not be able to compete for very long.
- ^ Being Norwegian in a Shrinking World, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen in Continuity and Change; Aspects of Contemporary Norway, Scandinavian University Press, Oslo, ISBN 82-00-21116-9
- ^ a b c The History of the Norwegian People by Knut Gjerset, MacMillan, 1915
- ^ a b c A History of Norway by Karen Larson, Princeton University Press, 1948
- ^ Letters On Sweden, Norway, And Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft; Cassell & Company; 1889 (reprint of 1795 publication). See Project Gutenberg for an e-text of this book
- www.bondebladet.no/ Bondebladet (in Norwegian)
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