The Kingdom(s) of Norway

Reconstructed Viking boathouse at the Nordvegen History Centre on the island of Bukkøy, off Avaldsnes in south-western Norway. Photograph by Ben Allport.

For the first century of the Viking Age, very little is known about the events that were unfolding in Norway: instead, we are reliant on archaeological evidence to tell us about the landscape of power. It is likely that Norway was divided up into petty kingdoms that struggled with on another for dominance. What these kingdoms were, and who ruled them, we cannot know for certain. Instead, we are left to piece things together from much later sources. Most of what we know about the late ninth and tenth centuries comes from the sagas, including the information that has led us to the dates in the timeline below. It is not until end of the tenth century, when Norwegian rulers started to have a more significant impact on events beyond Scandinavia, that we start to get corroborative evidence.

What's in a name: The 'North' or 'Narrow' Way?

In the late tenth century, a Norwegian sailor named Ohthere arrived at the court of King Alfred the Great and described his homeland and voyages he had taken north and south along the coast of western Scandinavia. This account survives as a text in Old English known as Ohthere’s Voyage. In this account, Ohthere refers to the Norwegian coastline as ‘Norðweg’, which in Old English means ‘the North Way’. It is commonly thought that this reflects the Old Norse form ‘Norðrvegr’ (with the same meaning), and that this is the origin of the English term ‘Norway’, as well as Norwegian ‘Norge’. This would mean that the name originated as a description of a sailing route, which gradually became attached to the land that lay alongside it, a process known as metonymic transfer.

 

There are several good reasons for assuming that this interpretation is correct. For a start, the coastal sailing route along the Norwegian coast could very logically be called the North Way, given that it leads one to the northernmost point of Europe and heads predominantly north and northwest. Secondly, in Old Norse literature we also find references to the East Way, West Way and South Way, all of which refer to well defined routes spreading out from southern Scandinavia: the East Way crossed the Baltic and headed down the Volga and Dnieper rivers to Volga Bulgaria and Byzantium; the West Way was the route to the British Isles and Ireland; and the South Way was the route through Germany to Rome.

However, in recent years an alternative theory has been proposed: that the term ‘Norðweg’ was an Old English corruption of Old Norse ‘Nórvegr’, which means ‘the Narrow Way’. According to this argument, the name refers to the geographical nature of the sailing route. The western coast of Norway is made up of rocky headlands and thousands of small islands. These islands provide protection from the rough seas of the North Atlantic, so it was safer for ships to sail in the narrow straits between the islands and the mainland—hence ‘the Narrow Way’. In support of this meaning is the fact that the two Viking Age references to Norway from Scandinavia (on the Jelling Stone and a rune stone from the 1030s) do not have ‘Norðrvegr’.

 

Which argument do you find more compelling?