A look at the little country that defied Europe
On the eve of Eidsvoll
From the Viking Age through the late Medieval Period, Norway was a country of influence and power in Europe. However, in 1275 CE, things began to change. From 1275 to 1870 CE, Norway was in the grip of the Little Ice Age, which brought a colder and more uncertain climate. Crops often failed, the seas became stormier, and even the herring eventually headed south for warmer waters.
To make matters even worse, plague took out two-thirds of Norway’s population in 1349. By the year 1400, Norway had to import much of its grain and had mortgaged what was left of its economy to the German Hanseatic League. Bankrupt and politically weak, the kingdom of Norway became a subordinate nation in the greater Scandinavian Kalmar Union, which initially included Sweden, but when Sweden dropped out, Denmark became the dominant partner.
On the eve of Eidsvoll, Norway, with a population of about 1 million, was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Not only had it been wracked by repeated famines, it had suffered British blockades that further aggravated hunger and weakened what economy was left in the nation. As a result of food stress, Norwegian men at the beginning of the 19th century had shrunk more than three inches from the days of the Middle Ages to an average of only 5 feet, 5 inches in height. The women were also 2 inches smaller than their medieval counterparts, at only about 5 feet.
It was around this time that Norway wisely began its love affair with the potato, which had been seen as an odd and foreign crop until the end of the 18th century. Now plagued by poor grain harvests and urged on by the “Potato Priests,” Norwegians began to see the value inherent in this Peruvian root crop. It was nutritious and grew well in Norway’s cold, rocky soils. For too long, Norwegians had added bark or straw to their bread dough to provide bulk, but little food value.
Under the thumb of Denmark, Norway was buffeted by the political whims of other nations. The Napoleonic Wars were particularly hard on Norway. British blockades levied against Denmark for its alliance with Napoleon severely hampered Norway’s ability to sell lumber and fish, two of its most crucial exports. Even if Norwegian ships got through the blockades along Norway’s coasts, they would have to pass through additional blockades guarding all the major French ports.
As if things were not bad enough, the King of Denmark thought it would be a good idea to attack Sweden in 1808, in the midst of his troubles with Great Britain. This led to a major Swedish attack on Norway, which was required to provide fighting men on behalf of Denmark. The Norwegians managed to push the Swedes back to the border, but the war further exacerbated Norway’s problems.
In 1812, Norway experienced a major crop failure in combination with a very poor harvest of fish. The timing was terrible, for in this same year, British ships renewed the blockade of Norwegian shores after a temporary respite. Food or goods could not easily leave or get into the country. The impact of these blockades was huge on Norwegian lives and also on the national psyche. It is no accident that one of Norway’s most recited poems—if not Norway’s “national poem”—Terje Vigen by Henrik Ibsen, is about cruel effects of the British blockades when Norway’s population had little to eat.
In the years following 1812, Sweden became a valued ally of Great Britain against Napoleon. So when the successful Great Powers divided up the pie following France’s defeat, Norway was a vulnerable slice of the pie. The Crown Prince of Sweden, Bernadotte (who later, as king, took the name Karl Johan), had long seen Norway as a good trade-off for Sweden’s loss of Finland to earlier Russian aggression. Denmark, which had remained in Napoleon’s camp to the end, lost Norway to Sweden in January of 1814 when the Treaty of Kiel was signed. Sweden got its wished-for reward of Norway.
By the eve of Eidsvoll most Norwegians had lost any feelings of loyalty for Denmark. For years they had been victims of the king’s poor judgment in politics and trade. As historian John A. Yilek emphasizes in his History of Norway, the overwhelming leaning of the people of Norway in the spring of 1814 was toward independence. Being traded to Sweden without their consent was an anathema.
It was time to rise and so they rose on May 17, 1814, in defiance of both Sweden and greater Europe. This was a very brave thing for a little impoverished nation to do, and it is for that bravery and foresight we should remember the heroes of Eidsvoll each 17th of May. On that day, they became giants.
Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.
This article originally appeared in the May 4, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.