Interview with Alf Ragnar Nielssen

In this blog have we sought to interview and get to know some of the scholars which have influenced us at University, until now have most of them been Historians at the University of Winchester. However, we think it is time to introduce to you other persons as well, and due to his recent book ‘Landnåm fra Nord’ and his position as Professor of Early History at the University In Nordland, Norway, did we think that a chat with him would be interesting. I was fortunate enough to get an appointment with Alf Ragnar Nielssen in August where we talked a bit, and he had been kind enough to write the answers to the questions in advance. [The questions and answer are translated by Karl Alvestad from Norwegian to English.]

Where did you study history, and why did you choose to study it?

–          I studied history at the then newly establishes University in Tromsø, and was a part of the first graduating class in history north of the Polar circle in 1973-74. It was quite a coincident that my major became history, as I was interested in language to start with, and started on a degree in English at the University in Oslo. Where I became extremely interested in the English renaissance literature, but in hindsight I think that it was more the renaissance as a historical period, than the literature, that I seized my attention and inspired me to continue with history.

How did you find life as a student? What did you like most?

–          Life as a student in Tromsø was exciting. It was the time of political radicalism, and the University became known as ‘the red university’. Not that it affected the studies that much, we had great respect for our teachers and the studies were built up very traditional. The new thing was that we focused on Northern-Norway’s history, which had been neglected at the universities in the south. In this did the students and the teachers inspire each other; one can almost claim that it was kind of a rebellion from the periphery against the centre. History was here a part of a wider movement in society. New international trends in history gained a foothold quicker in the north, such as social history, gender history and ethnic history. With the young university in Tromsø was it not necessary to fight the old to get a place for the new. It was also the time of the Student family, my wife and I are about the same age, and all our children had been born by the time we were done studying at the age of 28.

You have recently published a new book about the migration from Northern Norway to Iceland, but what did you think was most surprising about what you during the process of writing it?

–          I’ve been surprised that historians in so many years have manage to overlook that so many from the Northern Norway travelled to Iceland and took part in building the new land there at the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century. Based on the sources that exist, it might have been as much as 30 per cent of those that travelled from Norway. However, this have been overlooked in both a national and international research, were the North Sea perspective have been most dominant. A survey of the literature shows in fact what most of us do not like to hear, we repeat ourselves. Especially ill is it when, these repetitions which are wrong or distorted imaged of the truth, are repeated over generations.

What sort of research are you working on for the moment?

–          Fishery and costal history is my main focus for the moment. I’m one of the editors on a five volume work about Norway’s Fishing and costal history in 2014. In this work I’m primarily writing on the middle ages. We are four authors to the volume, two archaeologists and two historians. Some of the most inspiring for me is to work with the elder history which is cooperation with the archaeologists. Surprisingly enough have the costal and fishery history always been overlooked in the Norwegian history writing, it have always been the farmer and the agriculture which have been in focus in economic and social history. However this is about to change and this multi volume work is a part of this process. I also work actively with Sámi history, especially about the period in the 17th and 18th century and the conflicts when the Swedish and Danish-Norwegian states suppressed and occupied the Sámi settlement areas. The Sámi after all lived in a borderless area in the middle ages, outside the power of the state.

What is your best advice to a student who is studying history?

–          Log off Facebook, be strong, but at least take long breaks, and use deliberated time to study the academic literature! You will then feel better personally, and also achieve better results. The everyday pressure from the internet today is extreme and ruins the possibility of studying a topic in depth as well as it ruins concentration.

What is your stand on Ottar? Do you think his story was true, and what do you think is the reason why his story was recorded?

–          Ottar’s story is a good source for Norway in the Viking age. While other European sources from the period tells about the mythical and magic north and was mostly about the supernatural phenomena’s , Ottar comes forward as an insider in a natural and sober way to tell about the lifestyle, geography, social and ethnic relations, how trade was done etc. Although the writing situation might have created some mistakes, due to the lacking knowledge in Wessex about certain aspects of the story, such as reindeer farming and Whaling.

There have been some debate about the Alfred Jewel, and the other Aestel’s and what they really are, but what do you think they are? And where do they come from? And why is there one in Lofoten?

–          This debate I do not really know, and are you certain this debate does not take part outside the academic circles?

To you think it is an advantage to publish research material in English or German, compared to only publish it in Norwegian?

–          Norwegian is a very small language, and what I write in my native language does not reach far out. It is very important to publish ones results especially in English. I have done this in relation to international projects I’ve taken part in. The most important of these have been ‘The North Atlantic Fisheries History’ with researchers from 14 countries, where it was necessary to have all publications in English.

What do YOU think about the historiography that has been developed lately about the Vikings and how the myths have actually affected the study and understanding of Viking culture?

–          At the Norwegian Universities have the topic been steadily reduced the last decades. There are for example very few in Norway today which have a good understanding of the Old Norwegian language and the central sources that the sagas are. And then we have the public interest for the Viking age and the middle ages, which for a long time have been on a steady increase, but then mostly in connection to fantasy literature and films. It is the old myths about Middle Ages which in a way have had its renaissance. Yet it is many years since I understood it is not the historians which create the main picture of the past, it is produces first and foremost through media such as film and fiction. The historians more realistic stories are for more the special interested. It is for example long since archaeologists and historians figured out that the Vikings did not have horns on their helmet, but this is almost impossible for people to accept.

If there was one object from the Viking Age and Medieval period you could wish still existed, -and you could see, what would that be?

–          Then I would wish for the original Landnamabook from the 12th century which is not lost. It could have saved us for a lot of boring critical discussions about the source in relation to the value of the later version which we today are building our research upon. I addition would it be fantastic to hold such a text in ones hand and study it closer, one of the very first books written in Old Norse.

Finally; if you had a time machine and you could take one trip for research purposes, where and when would you go, and why?

–          Then I would go to the battle at Hafrsfjord, where king Harald Fairhair supposedly gathered Norway to one realm. There are so many questions connected to this event. We don’t really know who he fought against, or if the battle really was the end of the unification of the realm. Nor do we know when it happened. For over two centuries have it been argued about the dating of the battle suggesting everything from 872 and 885 to 900 and so on. Although a date is not the most important in history, it would give me great joy to be able to give future history students the correct date for the unification of Norway, instead of giving a series of alternatives.

We in the editorial group of the W.U Hstry blog would like to thank you Alf Ragnar Nielssen for your time, and wish you the best of luck with both your research and your students.

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