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Northernness in the Renaissance: Thoughts on the Constructivist Character of the ‘North’ | posted November 16, 2015

Inken Schmidt-Voges

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus (1539). Image: Wikimedia Commons

[1] In the learned discourse of the Renaissance, the North was not just depicted as a geographical location, but also contained a set of qualities which characterised its nature as well as the people who lived there: ‘Northernness’. It was a rough, wild place full of rocks, water, and woods, that posed a challenge for the people there. But instead of being barbarous villains – as antique, medieval and Italian humanist writers claimed – those people developed (in the eyes of historiographers from the supposedly ‘Northern’ cultures) an outstanding capacity to master their environment. To achieve this, their first and foremost qualities were bodily strength and health, inventiveness and, above all, incorruptible virtue and piety.

[2] During the sixteenth century, such concepts of ‘Northernness’ were increasingly adapted by those scholars who hoped to place their native country within the ‘competition between nations’ (Caspar Hirschi [1]), but could not rely on its participation in the Greek-Roman antiquity, or even in the sphere of Carolingian Latinity. In their historiographies, they shaped their ‘own’ Northern antiquity, on a par with its Greek-Roman counterpart, and in which they developed a cultural history of a specific Northern civility. With its unique link to nature, and nature’s impact on civility, the scholars not only formulated an ‘imitatio’ of Roman-Greek concepts, but rather an ‘aemulatio’. Thus, they responded to the offensive claims of superiority by Italian humanists. And in the religiously heated period of the sixteenth century, such Northern ‘aemulatio’ could easily transform into a protestant abiectio of Rome and all its moral depravations. In making such fundamental juxtapositions between concepts of civility, ‘Northern’ historiographers in the Renaissance drew upon a way of mapping civic Europe deeply rooted in European tradition and learned thinking.

[3] Understanding  the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ – not as given facts, or alleging any kind of essence to them – but rather by seeing them as outcomes of complex processes of scholarly negotiation, it is essential to analyse the learned traditions, the core elements of inventing ‘Northernness’, and the use of such concepts in the political arena. Referring to recent studies that deal with similar ideas with regard to single societies and cultures, a comprehensive view will be suggested, to offer fresh insights on the overarching context of cultural differentiation and stratification in Renaissance Europe.

[4] To produce a positive image of the North, it was vital for Northern European historiographers to overcome negative associations, which had been shaped by classical authors such as Phyteas of Massilia (c. 380 BC – c. 310 BC), Strabo (c. 63 BC – c. 23 AD) or Pliny the Elder (23-79). These writers had passed on the image of a peripheral region on the margins of the world, shaped by  darkness, fog, cold, and scarce resources. These areas, where water and land merged in what Strabo called a ‘sea-lung’, marked the transition zone between earth and sky: here lived lugubrious and menacing people like the Cimmerians. [2] The North still remained a disquieting space for medieval writers, who filled in gaps in their knowledge by referring to classical authors. Adam of Bremen, for example, wrote in the 11th-century about the regions beyond the Danish sound as an alter orbis of Sueonia and Nortmannia, which were said to be two vast Northern realms, though they were mainly unknown to ‘us’.[3] In 1185, with Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, a more detailed view of the nature, culture and history of Denmark was available to European scholars. Although he played with elements of notions of the ‘North’, he placed Denmark within the cultural and political norms of continental Europe, thus moving the ‘North’ higher in terms of latitude.[4] With the rediscovery of Strabo’s Geographia in 1469, alongside with Tacitus‘ Germania, and other ancient texts about extra-classical regions and people, this ‘new ancient knowledge’ fuelled the humanist discourse on the history of peoples and their ethnography. Such histories provided elements for a nation-based collective identity which – because of its comprehensive framework – became increasingly attractive at a time of increased political change, conflict, and fragmentation. While Italian humanists used negative depictions of Gothic and Germanic peoples and their habitats to demonstrate the superiority of Italian culture and learning [5], historiographers of those slandered regions had to draw a different picture. Their notion of the ‘North’, ‘Northernness’, and its qualities, was to contain not only equally-accepted elements of culture and civility in the sense of an imitatio, but one that exceeded those claimed by the Italian humanists in the sense of an aemulatio.

[5] The most spectacular examples were certainly the histories of the brothers Olaus and Johannes Magnus, who published the comprehensive tripartite work: the Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum diligentissime eleborata (1539), the Historia de regibus Gothorum Sveonumque (1544) and the Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (1557). Their position was an awkward one, a classic double bind. As canons in Strängnäs and Uppsala they had supported the political disengagement of large parts of the Swedish elites from the Kalmar Union and Sweden’s independence which was established through the coronation of Gustav Eriksson Vasa as King in 1523. They served the new government mainly as envoys in the Baltic and Italy, using networks and contacts established during travels as students. But they clearly opposed Gustav Vasa’s move towards the reformation, so that both brothers fled Sweden in 1526 to escape the execution of a ban. Henceforth, they lived in the hospital of St. Bridget in Rome, travelling through Italy and trying to build support for a counter-reformation agenda in Sweden among the European clerics gathered for the Tridentine council. Since they were confronted with a deep lack of knowledge and ignorance as far as those Northern peripheries were concerned, they tried to implement a positive, attractive and captivating picture of the ‘North’ by depicting the benefits of ‘Northernness’ for Europe, proving the particular kind of civility that if offered.

[6] Given the existing notions of the ‘North’, they chose not to contrast nature and culture, but to relate them to each other and show nature’s impact on human life and the emergence of a specific form of ‘pure’ civility. Pursuing this task, three elements can be discerned in their historiographic work, which found their pictorial representation in the Carta marina: firstly the characterisation of Northern nature; secondly its richness and wealth of resources; and thirdly the qualities of the people living there regarding physical strength and health, bravery, and above all, piety.

[7] In humanist discourse, nature was seen as a gauge of the degree of wilderness or civility. Referring to classical texts, a wild and inhospitable nature produced wild and barbarous humans, while a moderate climate and mellow landscapes formed civilised and peaceful people. Dealing with such prevailing views, the Magnus brothers drew the picture of a rough, though elevated, nature which showed in its ‘grandezza’, and overflowing abundance, a special set of blessings within God’s creation: vast woods, roaring waterfalls and rivers, ice covering the gulfs of the Baltic in winter providing additional ground for trade, architecture and divine services, and a never-setting sun in summer that outshone the darkness of winter.

[8] The positive notion of ‘Northern’ landscapes was reflected in its richness of natural resources, such as precious furs of wolverines, polar foxes, martens, otters, seals and even polar bears. Reindeers, deer and fish provided food; whilst amber and ambergris as well as copious ore reserves made the Scandinavian North a powerful and indispensable region for European trade and well-being.

[9] But most important for a construction of Northernness was the positive impact such a natural environment had on the people living there, whose qualities were shaped and related to these special conditions.

[10] Above all, physical strength and health of the Northern people was a direct consequence of the harsh environmental conditions. Endurance and velocity in hunting marked women as well as men; subtle handicraft skills allowed them to make use of nature’s richness. Using fishbones as building material; preservation of fish by drying instead of using expensive salt; or hunting on skis: Northern people were not the supposed barbarians in an overwhelmingly rough nature. Rather they appeared as paragons of civility who tamed and subdued such a powerful territory by resilience and inventiveness.

[11] This was also true as far as the social order was concerned. Being the most significant aspect of civility, Northernness was expressed in forms such as of a literate legal culture; a political culture shaped by an elective monarchy; the rule of the best  rather than a hereditary nobility; as well as an outstanding toughness and bravery in war against outside intruders. Domestic politics however were dominated by prudent, diligent and peaceful governance; tyrants and luxurious rulers were not tolerated; and the lack of splendour in court or of elaborate ceremonial pomp was – in the eyes of the Magnus brothers – not a sign of barbarity or savagery, but an indication of a pure and plain core of human existence, shorn of superficiality and material excess (things Northern people could not afford anyway, given the severity of living).

[12] Closely intertwined with those political morals was the piety and religious devotion: an essential dimension of Northernness. Having to meet the challenge of living in a demanding environment, Northerners could not afford to neglect their religious duties – they honoured God in a plain, but truly-heartfelt worship as well as in a virtuous conduct of life.

[13] Hence, ‘Northernness’ was applied to a set of human qualities emerging from the exposure to a demanding, but nevertheless extraordinarily-elevated, nature. In the context of humanistic discourse, the said qualities appear to be the core elements of a ‘civility’, devoid of all ostensible representation, but manifest in acting and behaving. Such a notion of Northernness ties in with critical discourses of aristocracy of virtue and of decadency, yet the texts hint at the preeminence of the Northern way of life, compared to the decadence in – if not in the ‘south’, yet at least in the moderate regions.

[14] Since Olaus Magnus and his brother sought to inspire Catholic Europe, i.e. Italy, they could not elaborate too much on these aspects of aemulatio, but had to keep highlighting the imitatio: the equality of the culture of the Northern – in his case Swedish – people despite their exclusion from classical antiquity. Magnus’ historiographical successors in seventeenth-century Sweden, had no difficulties in focussing on this aspect and give it a religious meaning [6], but his more moderate concept of ‘Northernness’ can be observed in his description of the Laplanders. They very much appeared as the wild, barbarous North where civility was still lacking. Writing the History of the Northern people, and sketching a map of the Northern regions, has therefore to be considered as an attempt by Magnus to encode his native culture within the European community of values and civility, offering Northernness as a beneficial, rejuvenating and nourishing part of it.

[15] The Swedish example of actively promoting a positive notion of Northernness had been perceived as the most far-reaching one. Yet, it was part of a much more comprehensive development in the societies beyond the Alps, who in one way or another felt the need to respond to Italian vilification.[7] It shaped the dispute about Tacitus’ Germania and influenced the writings of Albert Krantz, David Chyträus or later Philipp Clüver on the cultural history of Germanic tribes.[8] But it was also a crucial part in Dutch writings about their Batavian history, trying to historicise their political independence and cultural superiority over a decadent and tyrannous Spain. Thomas Brochard has recently pointed to the internal differentiations in the British Isles between English civility and Irish or Scottish savagery.[9] Like the ‘North’, ‘Northernness’ was not a given, fixed attribution but was a relative concept within the European arena of political and cultural competition – and as such could be used in various ways. How much it was indeed a fluid concept of self- or other-ascription can be seen in the fact that such notions of ‘Northernness’ were not only to found in regions of a certain latitude, but also of certain altitude, as descriptions of Alpine people show.[10]

[16] To draw some conclusions from these reflections on the constructing processes and contexts of ‘Northernness’ in Renaissance historiography, it seems necessary to scrutinise their meaning for our own academic understanding of the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ as descriptive and analytical patterns.

[17] Notions of the ‘North’ as well as ‘Northernness’ are the results of complex and more-or-less subtle negotiating processes in Renaissance Europe, when the insertion of newly rediscovered source material altered the way of thinking about Europe as a culturally and historically diverse and complex ensemble. In integrating a positively connotated ‘North’ into an emerging and changing concept of Europe, it served as a line of gradation within internal disputes of hierarchy. These Renaissance discourses formed the base for enlightened thoughts of climate and culture as well as romantic and racial concepts of the ‘North’ and ‘Northernness’ in the nineteenth and twentieth century.[11] All of them referred to it in order to think, mark, and express difference, and quite often in a manner calculated to demonstrate fundamental cultural superiority or inferiority. These contexts should be kept in mind when we discuss concepts of the ‘Northern renaissance’, in which this underlying struggle of cultural meaning exist on a different level.

Philipps University Marburg, September 2015

About the author

Inken Schmidt-Voges teaches Early Modern European History as an Interim Professor at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. In her PhD-thesis she had worked on Swedish gothicism as historical self-image and its political use. Her research interests centre more broadly on political communication from judicial rhetorics in domestic conflicts up to printing strategies in international relations. She is managing a DFG-founded project on ‘Media Constructions of Peace in Europe, 1710-1721’ at the University of Osnabrück and currently developing a book-length project about the intertwining of domestic economy, politics and diplomacy in the cross-cultural networks of Northern Europe in the sixteenth century.

End Notes

[1] Hirschi, Caspar. Wettkampf der Nationen: Konstruktionen einer deutschen Ehrgemeinschaft an der Wende vom Mittelalter zur Neuzeit, Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag 2005.

[2] Käppel, Lutz. “Bilder des Nordens im frühen antiken Griechenland” in Ultima Thule. Bilder des Nordens von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Annelore Braunschmidt-Engel et al., Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2001, p. 11-28; Molina Moreno, Francisco. “Bilder des heiligen Nordens in Antike, Patristik und Mittelalter” in Ultima Thule. Bilder des Nordens von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, ed. Annelore Braunschmidt-Engel et al., Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2001, p. 29-46.

[3] Adamus of Bremen. The History of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, transl. Francis J. Tschan, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, chap. 4,21. For a discussion of medieval notions of the North see Scior, Volker.

[4] Hadfield, Andrew. “The Idea of North” in Journal of the Northern Renaissance 1 (2009).

[5] Magnus, Olaus. Carta marina et descriptio septemtrionalium terrarum ac mirabilium rerum in eis contentarum diligentissime eleborata, Venedig 1539; Magnus, Olaus. Ain Kvrze Avslegung Vnd Verklerung der neuuen Mappen von den alten Gœttenreich vnd andern Nordlenden sampt mit den uunderlichen dingen in land und uasser darinnen begriffen biss her also klerlich nieintuuelt geschriben, Venedig 1539; Magnus, Johannes. Historia de regibus Gothorum Sveonumque, Rom 1544; Magnus, Olaus. Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, Rom 1557.

[6] Inken Schmidt-Voges, De antiqua claritate et clara antiquitate Gothorum: Gotizismus als Identitätsmodell im frühneuzeitlichen Schweden, Frankfurt: Peter Lang 2004, chap. 8.

[7] Münkler, Herfried. Nationenbildung. Die Nationalisierung Europas im Diskurs humanistischer Intellektueller: Italien und Deutschland, Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1998.

[8] See for example Krebs, Christopher. A most dangerous book: Tacitus’ Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, New York: Norton, 2011.

[9] A recent discussion with regard to Scotland see Brochard, Thomas. “The Integration of the Elite and Wider Communities of the Northern Highlands, 1500-1700: Evidence from Visual Culture” in Northern Scotland 6 (2015), p. 1-23.

[10] See for example: Mathieu, Jon. Die Alpen! Les Alpes! Zur europäischen Wahrnehmungsgeschichte seit der Renaissance, Bern: Peter Lang, 2011.

[11] Hormuth, Dennis / Sach, Maike (eds.). Norden und Nördlichkeit. Darstellungen vom Eigenen und Fremden, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2010; Fülberth, Andreas (ed.). Nördlichkeit – Romantik – Erhabenheit: Apperzeptionen der Nord/Süd-Differenz 1750-2000, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2007.

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