30th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies
Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 27-28, 2010

Kevin J. Wanner, "Priests, Poets, and the Legitimacy of Kings: Using Weber and Bourdieu to Understand Top-Down Conversion in Medieval Scandinavia"

In this paper, I propose to analyze the dynamics of top-down conversion in medieval Scandinavia, with a focus on the part played by Norway’s kings and rulers as depicted in Norwegian and Icelandic texts, and using insights gleaned from Max Weber’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s discussions of the kinds of legitimation that different types of religious specialists offer to those who seek to hold or attain political authority. Both Weber and Bourdieu describe the ways in which “charismatic” powers, i.e., knowledge, qualities, and talents perceived as extraordinary and often inspired, become vested in specialists who, in return for compensation, privileges, and honors, exercise these powers so as to supply more worldly or routinized authorities with legitimacy. In conversion-era Scandinavia, two loci of charismatic power and corresponding sources of legitimacy were court-poets or hirðskálds, the chief intellectual carriers of native “pagan” religion, and priests and bishops, the chief intellectual carriers of imported Christian religion. The competition to provide legitimacy to rulers was eventually resolved in favor of Christian agents. I will propose that this outcome be understood as resulting not so much from the comparative strength or value of the “contents” of the respective religions (e.g., their theologies, mythologies, cosmologies, etc.) as from the relative degrees of their carriers’ professional organization or institutionalization, in other words, from the degree to which they operated within autonomous “fields” of cultural practice and production defined by specific stakes and interests. Finally, while I will use the evidence of Scandinavian kings’ relations with poets and priests to argue that the potential for rulers to realize profits of legitimacy rises with the autonomy of the charismatic agents or institutions supplying it, I will also illustrate the risks such autonomous sources of legitimacy pose by considering the contests of authority that developed between ecclesiastical and royal agents in the centuries following conversion.


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