The Imprisonment of Erling Steinveggr: a Case Study of Exile

One of the best things about doing research is finding pieces of evidence in the most unexpected places. I am back in Norway working on the Nordic Civil Wars project, thinking about how conflicts were resolved; what worked and what did not. As part of this, I have been reading Baglarsaga – chronicling the earliest years of the thirteenth century in Norway – looking for evidence of peace agreements. It was not the place I would expect to find any evidence for my forthcoming book on international law, but only two pages in, I realised I had struck gold.

One of the versions of Baglarsaga has a story about how King Sverre of Norway (r. 1177-1202) found out that there was a man in Denmark who was calling himself Erling, son of the previous King Magnus V Erlingsson (r. 1161-84), who, at one point, had been Sverre’s main rival for the Norwegian throne. Upon hearing this, and obviously realising that a son of his rival was a significant threat to his own position, Sverre sent men to Denmark to look for Erling, who promptly fled to the province of Göta in the kingdom of Sweden. Sverre then sent a letter to the Swedish king, Knut Eriksson, to whom he was related by marriage, and told him that ‘there was a man in his realm, who was calling himself a son of King Magnus, and who likely wanted to cause ‘ofrið’ (lit. unpeace) in Norway.’ As soon as King Knut heard this, he sent men to look for Erling and put him in the stone tower in the fortress of Näs on Visingsö – an island in lake Vättern – where he remained for a while (Bǫglunga sǫgur (1988), 2: 12).

The reason why this is of interest to me in writing about international law in the period up to c. 1200 is, as explained here many times before, that expulsion of individuals who were deemed dangerous in some way or another, and how these were tracked and chased across different political entities, is one of the best ways to see that international law was practised on a daily basis in the medieval period. Containing the movements of these people was of significant concern to rulers and, in many ways, was an extension of what can be seen in domestic laws from across the medieval West. We know something about how this was attempted because several treaties set out that neither side was to receive the men of the other without some form of identification that they came on legitimate business. Lists of ‘undesirable’ individuals were kept (e.g. Treaty of Falaise 1174), and we know that in certain contexts such lists were exchanged with the other side (e.g. Treaty of Colombiers 1189). We know that rulers could also intervene directly to canvass for the return of men who had been expelled, or to ask for them to be kept away. For instance, an eighth-century letter of Charlemagne to the Archbishop of Canterbury outlines the fate of Mercian exiles, asking the archbishop to intercede with the Mercian king, Offa, on their behalf so that ‘they may be allowed to return to their native land in peace and without unjust oppression of any kind’ (EHD I, no. 197).

The fortress of Näs, surrounded on three sides by water

The story in Baglarsaga evidently fits this wider context, showing how rulers could, and did, take action on this tricky issue. Of particular interest to me personally, is the imprisonment of Erling on Visingsö. I had the opportunity to visit the island in 2016 and can confirm that it lives up to its billing as the island of kings and legends. The fortress of Näs, on the southern tip of the island, was the seat of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century kings of Sweden, and presumably intended as a location that provided great security – though ironically King Karl Sverkersson was killed there in 1167. Little of the fortress survives now, having crumbled into the sea over the centuries, but if its location is any indication, King Knut seemingly felt that Sverre’s request to apprehend and keep Erling was of some significance. The pragmatist in me, of course, wants to argue that the fact that Erling was kept alive, indicates that Knut felt that this was a good chess piece to have and to play if the opportunity arose. More importantly, for the saga author at least, while the stone tower at Näs might have been impregnable, it was, nonetheless, one from which a man could escape. This, Erling promptly did, with the help of the woman who had been feeding him, and he subsequently acquired the byname ‘Steinveggr’ (lit. stone wall) as a commemoration(!) of his incarceration.

Iron-age graves on Visingsö

Exactly what happened to Erling afterwards is disputed among the sagas, and even among the different versions of the same saga – likely the author(s) didn’t know. Nevertheless, the story has provided me with a great case study and reminded me about that beautiful summer day when I may (or may not) have fallen off my bicycle on a completely straight bit of road going towards Näs, because I was watching the surrounding scenery with iron-age graves, straight oak trees, and stunning views of the lake…


Out on a limb: International law in the earlier Middle Ages

I’m a bit nervous. Next week I’m presenting a piece from my forthcoming book at the ‘Law and Legal Agreements’ conference in Cambridge, organised by the Voices of Law international network. I will contend that there was a notion of international law in the earlier Middle Ages. It will be the first time I am presenting this idea in some detail and I know from talking to people about my research, that the idea will be contentious both in terms of theoretical framework and in terms of the evidence used.

No, I won’t discuss the meaning of the word ‘international’ or the supposed ‘universality’ of international law, nor the difficulty of applying these concepts to the medieval period. And, I won’t talk about the revival of Roman law and the contribution of Canon law to this topic either, nor about the fact that any assumption that there was no international law in the medieval period is currently not based on an examination of the two most important sources for it: treaties and custom. I feel like I’ve done that already and have nothing to add to anything I previously said!

Instead, I am following the very simple formula of Martin Dixon in his Textbook on International Law that ‘the most cogent argument for the existence of international law as a system of law is that members of the international community recognise that there exists a body of rules binding upon them as law’, and that the evidence of this can be seen through (1) its regular practise, (2) through the justification of action, and (3) through the fact that the majority of international legal rules are consistently obeyed (Dixon 2013: 4). My evidence is those treaties – or legal agreements – produced in the period c. 700 to c. 1200, as well as descriptions of customs, and their links to domestic laws and practices.

It will come as no surprise to many that I argue that one of the best ways to see (1) in the medieval period is to look at the practices surrounding displacement of people and in particular expulsion – exile, banishment, outlawry or whatever we want to call it. The expulsion of individuals who had committed reprehensible acts was one of the ways in which medieval rulers and communities dealt with law and order. As an alternative to corporal punishment, such as mutilation or death, expulsion from a political entity – whether we view this as a city, region or kingdom – was reserved for the most serious offences; those which could not be atoned for with compensation. However, while expulsion was intended to ensure law and order on a domestic level, it could result in becoming a threat to peace and security on an ‘international’ level. Primarily this was because, once expelled, such individuals often committed further reprehensible acts and/or engaged in conflict against the entity from whence they had come. The provisions for dealing with this threat in treaties, in customs, and in domestic laws and practices, show a more co-ordinated and systematic approach than medieval scholars have perhaps appreciated in the past. One could, and I will, argue similarly for other provisions, and, in my paper, I will use those for arbitration and trade to show some of the possibilities for (2) and (3).

In short, I will argue that as there were no nation states in medieval Europe, it is inevitable that traditional views of state-centred international law and institutions must give way to a different model – the one I’m presenting – which recognises the plurality of law and that the locus of political and legal power in the Middle Ages was multi-layered.

I hope to see some of you in Cambridge next week, prepared, as a very good friend and colleague told me today, with those awkward questions I often target at others. Well, I am not averse to taking risks and simply throwing myself down that ski slope that turned out to be off-piste or riding on that roller coaster that got stuck at the top for hours. Bring it on!

Developing a Theoretical Framework for Medieval Diplomacy

I am suffering from research insomnia. You know, that condition that afflicts all academics once they have had enough time and space in their minds to recover from a long term and to start thinking about all those research projects they’ve been neglecting. In my case, it is coinciding with something I have been pondering for a while: how to establish the right theoretical framework for my next monograph.

The outline for the book – Law, Treaties and International Relations, 700-c.1250 – I have had for a while and have been writing chapters towards it. The main thrust up to this point has been on thinking about international law; what it is and what the possibilities and problems are for the early medieval period. However, I have had a sense for a while that I was not quite getting to the bottom of things and in the last few weeks have started working on a slightly different theoretical model that will better bring out the legal aspects of the book by focusing on known issues within diplomacy and international relations: security, displacement of people, deterrence, transitional justice and so on.

I know that this modern take on medieval diplomacy will be unpopular with many early medievalists but I think it is important to re-align the historiography on pre-modern diplomacy with its more modern counterparts for several reasons. As John Watkins noted in 2008: ‘Much IR theory may first seem irrelevant to a discussion of premodern diplomatic configurations because of its grounding in relationships between modern nation-states. But scholars writing on anything from strategic negotiations and treaty-making to the cultural impact of shifting political configurations in the premodern period could benefit from reading bodies of IR theory that explicitly challenge the state-based assumptions currently dominating the field, such as transnationalism, postinternationalism, Robert Keohane and Jospeh Nye’s complex interdependence theory, constitutive theory, and Krasner’s international regime theory’ (John Watkins, ‘Toward a New Diplomatic History of Medieval and Early Modern Europe’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 38 (2008), p. 5)

Furthermore, currently scholars of pre-modern and modern diplomacy are often talking past each other because of the different vocabularies and terminology used to express that scholarship. For instance, medieval historians rarely discuss exile and outlawry within the context of displacement of people and its link to the crime-conflict nexus – both of which are well-known issues in IR studies. This has resulted in some curious gaps in the historiography, with most text books and longer surveys of diplomacy, international relations and international law giving the Middle Ages the heave-ho despite the fact that there are scholars working on aspects of these topics. One of the most recent examples I came across was piracy – a known threat to contemporary international shipping. Reading some of the literature on this topic, one would think that counter- and anti-piracy was a 21st-century phenomenon, even though scholars working on the Vikings, Slavs or on fourteenth-century piracy might disagree once they saw the practices that underpin these two concepts.

Adopting a more modern vocabulary and theoretical model does not mean abandoning that fundamental principle of questioning the medieval evidence or taking the evidence out of its immediate context. Yes, I frequently get asked about this. Having embarked upon this new direction for the book, it is still the case that it will be based on the evidence from medieval treaties or descriptions thereof. In fact, it is that evidence that is leading me to frame the content of the study in IR theory. If I was to discuss, say, exiles, arbitration, or compensation without this theoretical framework, I would be missing a significant point about where this material sits in our history. Most importantly, related fields within medieval history, such as violence and conflict, have gone through a similar progression of wider interdisciplinary and theoretical analysis.

To test the waters before embarking completely on producing the monograph, I am just putting the final touches to an article on ‘Peace, Security and Deterrence’ for Walter P. Simons’ collection of essays in A Cultural History of Peace in the Medieval Age. I guess this means research insomnia might continue for another week or so.