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Icelandic Drinking Horn Changes Our Historic Understanding of Saint Olav

Icelandic Drinking Horn Changes Our Historic Understanding of Saint Olav

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After the Reformation, Norway's Olav Haraldsson was no longer supposed to be worshipped as a saint. An Icelandic drinking horn offers some clues on how the saint's status changed over time.

Drinking horns were considered valuable objects, and were imbued with great symbolic value in the Middle Ages. Among other things, it was said that these kinds of horns came from the foot or claw of the fabled griffin. Drinking horns often had names, and were status symbols and collector's items. Some were stolen and many ended up in princely cabinets.

"Mediaeval drinking horns are scattered in collections throughout northern Europe. They were coveted collectibles. Mediaeval art often remained in churches until it went out of fashion or was removed due to errors in iconography, whereas drinking horns ended up in princely collections and cabinets and have kept their status to the present day," says Associate Professor Margrethe Stang, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) Department of Art and Media Studies.

Stang is an art historian who has recently begun studying how St. Olav has been depicted on Icelandic drinking horns. She wrote her thesis on sculptures of St. Olav, and has been interested in the saint-king ever since.

Queens with Drinking Horns

She recently shared her knowledge of saints and pilgrims on the Norwegian Public Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) TV series Anno, which gave viewers a glimpse into what life was like around the time of the Reformation in the 1500s. The Protestant Reformation in Norway-Denmark is dated at 1537 and marks the time when the dominant religion changed from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism.

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"Saints and the cult of saints were an important part of life and an integral part of the culture. It wasn't just about something that happened on Sunday morning; it concerned their whole lives. People then were as familiar with the saints as people today are with the best football teams," says Stang.

It was while working on an article about chess pieces from the Isle of Lewis that Stang took a closer look at the queen pieces.

Drinking horns ( CC BY-SA 2.0 DE )

"A few of them hold their own drinking horns. It made me curious about the significance of drinking horns in the Middle Ages, so I started to dig into it and found a small group of drinking horns, particularly Icelandic ones, that depict St. Olav," she says.

The Reformation brought an end to the worship of Catholic saints, and St. Olav was no longer to be considered a saint. The motifs on the Icelandic drinking horns show that the saint-king acquired a new role.

St. Olav is portrayed on the drinking horns "alongside biblical ideal kings like King Solomon and King David and historical figures like Charlemagne and Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. It's clear that the old Catholic saint is being depicted in a new context, as an historical king and not a saint-king. He was given a new role. The horns show a shift in the perception of Olav," Stang says.

Kings of The Time

Stang suspects that Olav was regarded as a saint, even after the Reformation.

"When Christian IV travelled to Norway in 1599, we know that a toast to St. Olav was raised during a peasant wedding. The fact that a culture existed to toast the saints gives great context for the drinking horns. The horn motifs reflect their use and show the close relationship between them," she says.

Depicting saints on drinking horns was common even before the Reformation, according to Stang, but it seems that the Olav motif was particularly popular in the decades around 1600.

Christian IV receives homage from the countries of Europe as mediator in the Thirty Years' War. Grisaille by Adrian van de Venne, 1643.

"There was an interest in contemporary historical figures during the Renaissance. Kings were current figures, and the king was also the head of the Church," says Stang. Local saint variations

Norwegian drinking horns are smooth and have inscribed metal mountings, while Icelandic ones consist only of the horn. However, they are richly decorated with reliefs carved into the horn itself.

Why St. Olav is depicted on so many Icelandic drinking horns is one of the questions that researchers have not yet answered.

Stang believes St. Olav must have had a different status in Iceland than in Norway, and that the importance of his being a Norwegian king must have been experienced differently.

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"St. Olav was a popular saint across much of northern Europe, but I think there was a wide variation in how he was perceived. We might not have recognized the Olav that was worshipped in northern Germany, for example. The cult of saints had a stronger local stamp than we normally imagine," she says.

Statue of S. Olav (Austevoll Church) ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Stang relates a story from one of the Icelandic bishops' sagas, where Icelanders and Norwegians find themselves on a boat to Norway, discussing the saints.

The Norwegians tell the Icelanders that their saints are too weak, and are of course "punished" for their harassment of the Icelanders. This saga "shows that the cult of the saints had many local and regional variants, and that they were important for local identity," says Stang.

Place names describe Scandinavia in the Iron and Viking Ages

This article from Heritage Daily rings all my chimes: Place names describe Scandinavia in the Iron and Viking Ages.

Every now and then, researchers are lucky enough to experience a Eureka moment — when a series of facts suddenly crystallize into a an entirely new pattern.

That’s exactly what happened to Birgit Maixner from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) University Museum when she began looking at artefacts and place names. [continue]

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Scant research

The myth of Norway’s great medieval realm emerged after independence from Denmark in 1814.

“The dream of a great and mighty Norway in times past was an important element in Norwegian nation-building,” says Imsen. “Today, two hundred years after the union’s dissolution, we can allow ourselves a more down to earth attitude towards our national heritage,” he says.

Since 2010, 33 scientists from ten different countries and with multidisciplinary backgrounds set out to research what kind of political system this medieval Norwegian realm really was. The project, which was funded by the Norwegian Research Council, concluded at the end of 2014 and has resulted in five books and a PhD dissertation.

The results are summarized in a stunning book entitled Rex Insularum, which is the fifth in the series. The other four books deal with key aspects of the medieval Norwegian realm, such as taxation, legislation, and the relationship between the monarchy and the church.

Research yielded five books and a doctoral dissertation. Photo: NTNU SHOW MORE

The doctoral thesis focused particularly on the Orkney and Shetland Isles as a Norse “frontier” from about 1200 to 1468 and 1469, when the islands were pawned to the Scottish king. All the books are written in English.

“There has been little research on the history of the tributary lands after 1260, until now,” says Imsen. He assumes this may be because Norway simultaneously oriented itself increasingly towards its Nordic neighbours and the Baltic region in the east, and by 1319 entered into a number of political unions with Sweden and Denmark.

“Norwegian historiography often associates the period after 1319 with national decline,” Imsen says.

Icelanders too have shied away from their history after 1262, when they view Iceland’s subjugation to the Norwegian king as a loss of political independence. Iceland’s ancient people’s rule was replaced by a foreign power.

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20 Things Everybody Gets Wrong About the Middle Ages

The Battle of Agincourt (1415), from the Chroniques d&rsquoEnguerrand de Monstrelet (c. early 15th century). Wikimedia Commons.

20. Medieval archers did not draw their arrows from a quiver on their backs and would often not wear shoes whilst shooting.

Despite the frequent appearance of archers in modern media &ndash from Hawkeye in The Avengers to Legolas in The Lord of the Rings &ndash the commonplace positioning of the quiver is widely incorrect. Contrary to popular belief, archers on foot rarely, if ever, drew arrows from their back. The movement was clumsy, only suitable for shooting from horseback, with medieval archers instead preferring to draw from a quiver attached to their belts. Medieval archers were also known to often fire barefoot. Without the rubber grip afforded by modern shoes, the approximately 100 lbs draw weight of a longbow required the active use of one&rsquos toes to ensure a firm, stable footing.

Another Middle Age myth stemming from archery is the origin of the &ldquoV&rdquo sign, with the so-called &ldquotwo-fingered salute&rdquo widely believed to originate from French practice of removing the index and middle fingers of captured English archers to prevent them from using longbows. There is no evidence to support this claim whatsoever, whilst operating a medieval longbow actually only demands three fingers hence making the removal of two inconsequential and counterproductive. In fact, captured common soldiers were typically executed, possessing no ransom value, and the first recorded use of the sign dates to just 1901.

700 years old saint myth has been proven (almost) true

Scientists confirm that the age and content of an old sack is in accordance with a medieval myth about Saint Francis of Assisi.

For more than 700 years the Friary of Folloni near Montella in Italy has protected and guarded some small fragments of textile.

According to the legend the textile fragments originate from a sack that appeared on the doorstep of the friary in the winter of 1224 containing bread sent from Saint Francis of Assisi, who at that time was in France. The bread was allegedly brought to the friary by an angel.

Ever since that cold winter's night the sack has been guarded by the friary, and today the last few remaining fragments are kept as a relic in a well protected shrine.

In line with the legend

A Danish/Italian/Dutch team of researchers led by Associate Professor Kaare Lund Rasmussen from University of Southern Denmark has had the opportunity to conduct scientific studies of the alleged bread sack fragments. Their study is published in the journal Radiocarbon.

C-14 analysis revealed that the textile can be dated to 1220-1295.

The age is in line with the legend, says Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a chemist, and specialized in archeo-chemical analyses.

There was probably bread in the sack

The researchers also looked for traces of bread in the textile. They did this by looking for ergosterol, a sterol for the fungal kingdom and encountered in several types of mould. Ergosterol can be a potential biomarker for brewing, baking or agriculture.

Our studies show that there was probably bread in the sack. We don't know when, but it seems unlikely that it was after 1732, where the sack fragments were immured in order to protect them. It is more likely that bread was in contact with the textile in the 300 years before 1732 a period, where the textile was used as altar cloth -- or maybe it was indeed on the cold winter's night in 1224 -- it is possible, says Rasmussen.

Scientific measurements cannot prove a legend or belief. What they can do, is either to de-authenticate the object or show accordance between the physical/chemical evidence and the legend, say the researchers in their paper, published in the journal Radiocarbon.

Belief versus science

The researchers have not addressed the issue of how the bread sack ended up on the doorstep of the friary.

This is maybe more a question of belief than science, says Rasmussen.

The bread sack: According to legend the bread sack miraculously appeared on the doorstep of the friary in 1224. For 300 years it was used as an altar cloth. During this time pieces were cut off and given to other religious institutions in Italy. After an earthquake in 1732 a new friary was built and the remaining sack fragments were immured. I 1807 the fragments were moved to the main church, Santa Maria del piano. In 1817 half of the textile was returned to the friary. In 1999 the remaining half returned. Today the fragments of the textile are kept in a reliquary.


It was the night of 7 August 2018 that Caroline Fredriksen and Arne Anderson Stamnes, both archaeologists at the NTNU University Museum, realized that there was something very special about Løykja, in Sunndal municipality.

Metal-detector users had been submitting objects from the farmland here for several years. This led the county municipal archaeologists to take a closer look at the area. They found both cooking pits and an intact tomb, but hadn’t come up with a clear picture of what went on at Løykja – and to what extent. That’s what Caroline and Arne were trying to figure out this particular August night.

“Rain was forecast for the next day, so we had to run the georadar until 2 a.m. to cover everything before the earth turned to mud,” says Fredriksen.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR), also called georadar, sends electromagnetic signals into the ground, and some of these signals are reflected back when they detect structures below the surface. This is how archaeologists get a kind of x-ray map of what lies two to three metres below the ground.

Article continues below photo.

Running georadar at Løykja, where archaeologists and metal-detector users found a lot of excitement. Photo: Arne Andersson Stamnes, NTNU University Museum SHOW MORE

The degree of image detail depends on the soil. At Løykja, the ground conditions are particularly well suited for such geophysical investigations. Even as the two archaeologists were driving back and forth across the site at 8 km per hour, they could clearly see the remains of long houses and burial tombs appearing on the screen. Not to mention cooking pits – hundreds of them.

“In the end, we counted a total of 1154 pits. It’s pretty extraordinary.”

“We immediately realized that this was something out of the ordinary. In the end, we counted a total of 1154 pits. It’s pretty extraordinary!” said Fredriksen.

Norway’s foremost expert on transportation

Lærum turns over the new airport in Bardufoss to General Finn Lambrechts. (Photo: Private) SHOW MORE

NATO was created in 1949, and with the start of the Cold War, the arms build-up began. Norway also began to build up its armed forces and develop airfields. Military facilities needed upgrading and infrastructure. In 1952 the temporary, independent Defence Installations Directorate (FAD) was created, and Lærum became its installation manager. NATO in Paris had to approve all projects before they could be started, and FAD reported regularly to the Ministry of Defence about their businesses.

FAD was given responsibility to develop airports such as Lista, Torp, Rygge, Gardermoen, Ørlandet, Bodø and Bardufoss. Lærum was also engaged as a consultant for the Aviation Directorate and was responsible for the expansion of Sola Airport in Stavanger. Since he was a worldly and articulate expert with clear political opinions, he also served as an adviser to NATO in Paris and the Norwegian Air Lines (DNL).

In 1960, FAD closed down and the staff transferred to the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB). Lærum went back to work at NTH in Trondheim, where he concentrated on what he knew best: railway construction, airport construction and road building. He was regarded as one of the nation’s foremost experts in the field, and still had a number of external contracts in addition to his NTH position. Among other things, he assisted on the Public Roads Committee, which the Gerhardsen government created in 1964.

Lærum’s wife Sigrid died in 1963, and in 1965 he resigned from his position at NTH and moved to Bergen. There he established a branch of a consulting firm headquartered in Oslo, but he returned to Trondheim after two-and-a-half years. Eventually his health worsened and he died in 1972.

And thus ended the story of Ole Didrik Lærum, the real “hundred year-old who climbed out the window and disappeared.” He was Norway’s youngest civil engineer, who built the country’s most popular rail line, carried out breakneck ventures in Iran’s wild mountain landscapes, and frequented the Shah’s palace and Moscow’s social life. He was a consultant, an ambassador and an adviser to national leaders on three continents, and he also built the infrastructure that ensured Norway’s regional survival.

Could ancient bones suggest Santa was real?

Was St Nicholas, the fourth century saint who inspired the iconography of Santa Claus, a legend or was he a real person?

New Oxford University research has revealed that bones long venerated as relics of the saint, do in fact date from the right historical period.

One of the most revered Orthodox Christian saints, the remains of St Nicholas have been held in the Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Southern Puglia, since 1087, where they are buried in a crypt beneath a marble alter. Over the years relic fragments have been acquired by various churches around the world, calling into question how the bones can all be from the same person.

Using a micro-sample of bone fragment, Professor Tom Higham and Dr Georges Kazan, the Directors of the Oxford Relics Cluster at Keble College's Advanced Studies Centre, have for the first time tested one of these bones. The radio carbon dating results pinpoint the relic's age to the fourth century AD -- the time that some historians allege that St Nicholas died (around 343 AD). The results suggest that the bones could in principle be authentic and belong to the saint.

Professor Higham said: 'Many relics that we study turn out to date to a period somewhat later than the historic attestation would suggest. This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself.' St Nicholas is thought to have lived in Myra, Asia Minor, which is now modern day Turkey. According to legend he was a wealthy man who was widely known for his generosity, a trait that inspired the legend of Father Christmas as a bringer of gifts on Christmas Day.

Believed to have been persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian, the saint died in Myra, where his remains became a focus of Christian devotion. His remains are said to have been taken away by a group of Italian merchants and transported to Bari, where the bulk of them sit to this day in the Basilica di San Nicola.

The bone analysed is owned by Father Dennis O'Neill, of St. Martha of Bethany Church, Shrine of All Saints in Morton Grove Illinois, USA.

The relic originally came from Lyon in France but most of the bones believed to be from St Nicholas are still preserved in Bari, with some in the Chiesa di San Nicolo al Lido in Venice. Fr.O'Neill has acquired his collection over many years, mainly from churches and private owners in Europe, and includes a relatively large bone fragment which has been identified as part of a human pelvis, believed to be a relic of St Nicholas.

Interestingly, the Bari collection does not include the saint's full pelvis, only the left ilium (from the upper part of the bone). While Fr.O'Neil's relic is from the left pubis (the lower part of the bone) and suggests that both bone fragments could be from the same person.

Dr Kazan said: 'These results encourage us to now turn to the Bari and Venice relics to attempt to show that the bone remains are from the same individual. We can do this using ancient palaeogenomics, or DNA testing. It is exciting to think that these relics, which date from such an ancient time, could in fact be genuine'.

The relics held in Venice consist of as many as 500 bone fragments, which an anatomical study concluded were complementary to the Bari collection, suggesting that both sets of relics could originate from the same individual. It remains to be confirmed what fragments of the pelvis are contained amongst the Venice relics, if any.

The archaeologists' work has revealed that the bone has been venerated for almost 1700 years, making it one of the oldest relics that the Oxford team has ever analysed. As Radio carbon-dating technology has become more sophisticated in recent years, ancient relics have become more accessible in ways that previously would have been considered too invasive to study. Dr Kazan added: 'Where once we needed physical portions of a bone sample, we can now test milligram size, micro-samples -- opening up a new world of archaeological study.'

In the 16th century stories about St Nicholas become popular, and the legend of Father Christmas was born. December 6 is known and celebrated in several European countries -- particularly Holland, as St Nicholas Feast Day. On the eve of the feast, children leave out clogs and shoes to be filled with presents. Of the possible authenticity of the relic itself, Professor Higham concludes: 'Science is not able to definitely prove that it is, it can only prove that it is not, however'.

Watch the video: The Sea Wolves. A History of the Vikings Audiobook (June 2022).