Vernacular Culture in Hardanger

24 July 2012


Utne in Hardanger

The status of folk culture (or, if you prefer, vernacular culture) in the Scandinavian countries is perhaps unique in Europe, and is one of the features of life in Scandinavia that stands out in contrast to continental Europe. After the Scandinavian countries enriched themselves through plunder and trade during the Viking era, in the wake Christianization the economic structure changed dramatically. On the one hand, there was no longer any influx of booty from raids on defenseless communities; on the other hand, there was greater political unity, centralization, and administrative rationalization that perhaps contributed to the standard of life throughout the region. While the organization of Scandinavia according to the model of feudal agriculturalism practiced elsewhere in Europe may have had benefits in terms of social stability, the climate of Scandinavia was not conducive to agricultural wealth. This was especially true in Norway, where agriculture is largely confined to narrow strips of land between the fjord and the base of the mountains, and the growing season is quite short.

Traditional boat houses in Utne

I suspect that the marginal agricultural production of Norway meant that there was enough to survive, but not enough to thrive during the long period of settled agriculturalism. Norway remained “backward” — a backwater of Europe economically and culturally — until its rapid industrialization at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. During the thousand years or so of Norway’s backwardness — the stagnant period from about 900 to 1900 AD — the region was not known for its production of high culture. There is little art and literature that survives, in the sense of consciously produced art and literature intended for an elite audience. There was no Norwegian Dante, although we know that poetry was a prized art among the Vikings — unfortunately, but little has come down to us (and none that has come down to us was recorded contemporaneously). The literature that does remain is primarily the sagas written in Iceland, and I think these are correctly interpreted not as the efflorescence of Christianized agricultural civilization but rather as the final afterglow of Viking civilization. (If you want an argument for this, take Huizinga’s thesis from The Autumn of the Middle Ages and apply it, mutatis mutandis, to the autumn of the Viking age in Norway.)

Inside an old house in the open air section of the Hardanger Folk Museum

While post-Viking Scandinavia produced little in the way of high culture, it produced instead a remarkable efflorescence of vernacular culture. Of course we know that all regions of Europe have their folk cultures, some of them highly valued and some of them less so, and all have their traditional national costumes, but I can’t think of anywhere else in Europe where this popular culture has been so pervasive and so much a part of the life of the people, and has continued to play a significant role in the life of the people following industrialization and the introduction of high culture from continental Europe (with the possible exception of Eastern Europe, which was also considered “backward”). But the preservation of folk culture in Scandinavia was a rocky and difficult road, and by no means unopposed.

A snow shoe for horses in the Hardanger Folk Museum

The forces of change — and therefore the forces of tension and conflict over tradition — began with the first stirrings of the industrial revolution, when institutional forces competed both to preserve Norwegian traditions and to establish in its place a culture based on the model of continental Europe. The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments (in Norwegian this is Fortidsminneforeningen) was first founded (under a different name) in 1844; this organization sought to buy and to protect traditional Norwegian buildings. Yet in 1851 the Norwegian government passed the Church Law that provided for a minimum size for local churches, and which was employed as a pretext to tear down the greater number of remaining stave churches at that time. There were once hundreds of stave churches in Norway; now there are 28.

A traditional house in the Hardanger Folk Museum

One of the most vigorous expressions of vernacular culture in Norway was in music and dance. The relative isolation of communities due to the geographical structure of Norway meant that music and dance, like local costumes, varied from region to region. On the Handanger fjord, a particular kind of violin came into use, called the Hardanger fiddle (hardingfele in Norwegian). The violin as we know it in its classical form has its distinctive tone color from a strong overtone series; the Hardanger fiddle achieves an even stronger overtone series through the addition of four strings below the bowed strings, which vibrate in harmony with the bowed strings. Thus the distinctive tone color of the violin is done one better by the Hardanger fiddle.

Hardanger fiddles in the Hardanger Folk Museum

In the nineteenth century, when institutional and bureaucratic forces in Norway were seeking the kind of unity and bureaucratic centralization found in continental European states, efforts were made to eliminate traditional music and dance from local church ceremonies. The music of the Hardanger fiddle was denounced as “the Devil’s music” because it was said to contribute to drunkenness, license, and riotous living. Churches in Norway were ordered to conform their musical program to “classical European musical ideals,” while the folk music of Hardanger played on the Hardanger fiddle was considered dangerous because of its “rhythmic variation and ambiguous tonality.” In a world in which serialism in music is already dated, this objection may seem difficult to understand, but it was deadly serious at the time.

More traditional Hardanger fiddles in the Hardanger Folk Museum

The two quotes in the above paragraph were taken from a display about the legendary Handanger fiddler Ole Olsen Fyske that I read in the Hardanger Folk Museum in Utne. In addition to its collection of traditional local buildings — a collection that is the legacy of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments and the movement it fostered to preserve folk culture — the Hardanger Folk Museum has collections of traditional musical instruments, including several Hardanger fiddles dating to the 17th century, which one can easily imagine being played by some vernacular Paganini. The collection also includes textiles and folk costumes, and there is an archive of folk music from the region.

And yet more Hardanger fiddles…

In other posts I have mentioned my enjoyment of open air museums, which are particular plentiful in Scandinavia. In addition to entire structures being preserved in museum settings, there are also entire farms that have been preserved in situ. Many local museums supervise such preservation efforts within their district.

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Inside the Hardanger Folk Museum they have recreated a traditional Hardanger “bridal voyage” on a boat with the wedding couple, family, and a fiddler in the back to provide the music. This theme is the subject of a famous painting, “Brudeferden i Hardanger.” (see below)

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Brudeferd i Hardanger of 1848 ilustrates the traditional bridal voyage. There is also a silent Norwegian film from 1926 on the same theme.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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