The year 1849 was the breakthrough year for the National Romantic movement in Norway. It was in that year that Ole Bull, the renowned fiddler brought the Millerboy from Telemark to the concert hall in the capital. A large audience was, for the first time, presented with the Hardanger fiddle music, one of the authentic Norwegian popular cultural traditions. In the years after 1850 the Norwegian language movement took off. It was then that rural Norway experienced an awakening cultural independence, founded on inherited traditions. In the relations between Ole Bull and the Millerboy there were two cultures meeting. But a generation previously in the beginning of the 19th century, it was the rural culture which was brought out into the limelight, through the rector of Ullensvang. Nils Herzberg in his series of articles in the “Budstikken” (Message Stick) broadsheet on rural life and customs. In the watercolour “A Wedding in the Kingservigs Rectory”, we come into the historical stage where folk music and popular cultural traditions have played their part.
The two cultures
The famous “argument over the porridge” in the 1860s between Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and the social researcher Eilert sundt shows the conflicts between different cultural attitudes.
This was brought to a point in the question whether the Norwegian farmers’ wives could cook porridge, or not. From a bourgeois cultural point of view it was “jewels” which Asbjørnsen was finding, “saving them from a burning house”, because, in his opinion, during the industrialisation of Norway, people were simply throwing away all the old things. On the other side stood the social researcher, Eilert Sundt who wrote about people’s living conditions during the 19th century. Both had travelled widely amongst the masses and lived amongst them. Nevertheless they had widely diverging views on the people they were writing about. Asbjørnsen had a scientific education as well as being interested in collecting stories and legends. On a trip to Germany he had become acquainted with the latest theories on nutrition and health. In the research of the time strong criticism was expressed at the traditional method of cooking porridge. This started with the water being boiled, and then some meal was added and the whole was boiled up some more. Eventually the farmers’ wives took the porridge off the heat in order to add some raw meal. This made the porridge extra filling. It was this last operation that the researchers criticised. Asbjørnsen claimed that millions of kroner will lost every year because of the bad traditions of the farmers’ wives. It was here that Eilert Sundt was in opposition. He claimed that the food making traditions were founded on knowledge and experience which women had developed over 1,000 years. They had seen which food was nutritious and which was not. Research that did not take account of this experience was based on false foundations. In addition this discussion was a crass under-estimate of the women of Norway. Sundt disassociated himself from this, and more recent research has shown that the farmers’ wives were right.
Bourgeois "high" culture and popular "low" culture
As the bourgeoisie in Europe emerged as a class, they discovered that there were cultures within their own society which could not be explained on the basis that they were poor copies of the bourgeois life style. No the lower classes in society exhibited a different culture when compared to their own. As an explanation for this we got the idea of a “high” culture which represented the bourgeois, and a “low” culture which represented the culture of the common masses. The distinguishing mark of the “low” culture was the lack of a written language, and their cultural diffusion occurred in the first instance by oral transmission. According to the theory individual creation was not possible and creation could only happen collectively, hopefully by them imitating cultural impressions they could from the upper classes.
The bourgeois culture represented development, progressive elements in society. This was in contrast to the traditional approach, taking over cultural features from earlier generations without raising questions. Important characteristics of this discussion were the thoughts of an advanced, urban elite with European and international culture, set up against the domestic, regional, isolated and primitive popular culture.
According to these thought processes popular cultural expression was interesting to the extent that it had looked after and was the bearer of the original, genuine, collective and “raw” Norwegian culture, and could thus act as a supplier to and as an inspiration for artists within the classical genre. But first of all the cultural expression would have to be converted and re-interpreted within a bourgeois, classical, artistic framework. Here we can reflect on the farmers’ tales of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson which are closer to the European ideals of civilised behaviour and written traditions, than they reflect the reality of the lives of the farmers within Norwegian society. Bjørnson did not have an entirely positive view of the daily lives of farmers and fishermen and the common folk. He felt some responsibility to “clean up” what he had fetched out of the “common folk” before he presented it to a well-bred audience. Yes, it is exactly this cultural foundation that he argues for in his literary production.
Other artists too used popular culture as the raw material for their artistic creation. We can mention Ole Bull. Edvard Grieg and not least the collectors of tale, Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe.
It may be thought that it is unnecessary to put so much emphasis on describing this ideology. But in my view much of the theoretical foundations serve as a basis for action and politics today, even if no one will dare term the people as “the shaggy cave-dwellers” as Bjørnson described the farmers and the exponents of dialect , in a letter to Garborg.
The democratic view of culture
In great contrast to this view of culture was the democratic one. Henrik Wergeland, Arne Garborg, Aasmund Olavsson Vinje - and the social researcher Eilert Sundt all claimed that the ability to take part in development was not related to a special style of life, but was related to the ability to reflect on things and to think. It was therefore mass education was important if people were to take part in the development and management of society. But:
“We do not want education where the farmer meets something “new”, something above his head and outside his life experience. Similarly we do not want an education which will split his consciousness in a divided science. We want an education where the farmer without any special effort can assimilate things and get the benefit and pleasure of an education which ends up naturally in his own thoughts and only gives it new impulses and further ways of thinking, an education which does not tie him to submissive politeness, to self-realisation and self-observation because what the Bible offers is not like something strange and remote but is intended for him in his own daily life. He shall be taught to consider enlightenment as free and independent as his own property, to own and enjoy, to find mental nourishment.”
According to this view of culture, neither learning nor capacity for reflection is linked to one class or one group, but it is the capacity humankind has as a species. Thus any group or any people can absorb art and learning as long as they have been presented in a way that has some connection and relevance to people’s daily life.
Furthermore it is possible to integrate these traditions into all life styles if you can get people to accept them. In this way we therefore accept the idea of two main cultural directions in Norway. The one has its roots in the previous public service tradition from the Danish times, with its ideals from the Danish bourgeoisie. The other is founded on the Norwegian life style in the towns and the rural areas, and on the New Norwegian language which is based directly on the spoken Norwegian language, and when put into context is comprehensible for the recipients. Tradition is therefore no longer in opposition to learning, but is part of the environment which must be taken account of when something new is being introduced.
The division between those who saw it as a desirable development for the young cultural nation of Norway based on a Danish public service culture, gingered up by transformed impulses from Norway, and Those who wanted to go the whole hog and build up a cultural nation founded on its own traditions, language and life styles, was great. This is where the core of the language conflict and political development lies today. This is as true for regional development policy as it is for the debate on membership in the European Union. It is a matter of belief on one’s own traditions and life styles in Norway, while at the same time creating a culture which enables us to participate in the world society.
According to the traditions of Ivar Aasen, Aasmund Olavsson Vinje and Arne Garborg, the written New Norwegian language was first developed from the Norwegian dialects. After that they tried it out in lyrics and in prose, and Ivar Aasen tested it by translating both Shakespeare and Schiller before he knew that the language would hold. But just as important was the effort made by the people themselves in the rural areas and in the towns. This story remains to be written. It has to do with people’s participation in the development of Norway as a cultural nation. Here we have to find sources other than those written by the public service employees. An important source is the protocols and minutes and other data from the growth of societies and associations. I would particularly like to mention the Norwegian Language Society which had considerable influence at the end of the 19th century.
On questions regarding cultural development in Norway, the farmers got a reputation for being the enemies of culture and opponents of development. Let us look at what the farmers did to take part in the development of society from the middle of the 19th century onwards. Newspapers got themselves readers as they became available. Even if not everyone could read, it was enough that one could do so. This one person was made to read aloud. It was also told how people organised things to get hold of newspapers. Not only did they go round the people in the rural districts, they could also be shared between people in two rural areas. There is a story from Sørfjorden in Hardanger that in two rural areas on either side of a fjord, a white cloth was hoisted up when the newspaper had been read and was ready for fetching.
Norwegian-ness, freedom and christianity
Later on people formed youth associations. The broad-minded youth associations posed themselves an idealistic programme: “Norwegian-ness”, freedom, Christianity founded in Grundtvig’s cultural programme and a liberal Christian view of life. Let us hear how one of the very first youth associations came to be in the village of Botnen In Fyksesund, without any road connection.
“In Øystese, in Fyksesund, lies Botne Village remote and shut in. People stayed mostly at home, but most of them could read and there were many informed folk in the vicinity. Many young lads went to the teachers’ college and got jobs. They came home every summer. Nils Skaar who was later a member of Parliament and the manager of the Hordaland Folkeblad (a newspaper), in the winter of 1869 started up a handwritten newspaper for the village of Botne. It was to discuss village matters, youth affairs and was to bring out both serious and amusing articles. The newspaper was to be called “The Dwarf Language”. It immediately got a score of subscribers, who paid 2-4 shillings a year - this was to be a payment to the manager for the cost of paper and work. When Nils Skaar went to teachers’ college, the newspaper became a bit unstable. But it had stirred up so much in a group of village folk that in 1870 they wanted to start up a “people’s council.” “It was to be friendly to the farmers” said some folk. No, said the majority, supported by Nils Skaar, “we want a wider and freer programme so that the council can promote spiritual growth amongst young people”. A meeting was to be held with lectures and discussion. At least 30 layfolk signed up for this immediately. Skaar was the fist chairman and was there until 1873. The council took up matters like immigration, the farmers’ movement, pietism, the public school, physical exercise, teaching domestic science, cultivating fruit and vegetables in the village. In the winter of 1872 the council organised a “parliamentary meeting”. A dignified 55 year old was appointed president and sat with a mace in his hand. Many of those who attended remember the meeting and spoke about it 20 to 30 years afterwards. With most of the annual subscriptions they bought books - “Life in Norway” by Ole Vig, “Arne” by Bjørnson, “The Heir” and “Symra” by Ivar Aasen, “He and she” by Kristofer Janson were the first. And slowly the book collection grew to be about 100 volumes.
This little glimpse of how the youth association in the remote village of Botnen in Hardanger was started, illustrates well the fact that youth associations were grass-roots organisations. Furthermore it shows that people were by no means antipathetic to culture. On the contrary they were aware at an early stage that they would have to gain knowledge so as to be able to take part in the work of developing the young nation of Norway. The problem was how to get access to education and knowledge. Here the youth association was quite as important as the local college, because only a minority of the youth could afford to attend it. But those who did get the chance returned to the rural area and worked more with the youth association. And it was a goal in itself to create a form of schooling through the youth associations, where the members could be both teachers and students at the same time. Here we find the roots of the popular academies and other subsequent information work.
But what was to be the content of this work? Primarily it was to contain useful knowledge for everyday life, and the development of traditions with roots in daily life. It was therefore natural to provide literature in New Norwegian, literature with a reference to the rural environment, which also contained new ideas. It is interesting to note that the first local newspapers contained more material from abroad than from local districts, because it was very important for people to keep abreast of what was happening.
Traces of culture
There were many areas where the users of New Norwegian language, also described as antipathetic to culture, made their presence felt.
First of all literature in New Norwegian. From the very beginning ideas from European spiritual life were essential for the writers who developed the language as a literature. We can point to a continuity right up to today from Aasen to Aasmund Olavsson Vinje, Arne Garborg, Kjartan Fløgstad and many others.
The local colleges were critical in this, but it was also important to establish teachers’ colleges.
The teachers’ college at Stord soon became a centre for teaching but also a source of inspiration for rural youth. But people went much further, they worked actively to establish a University of New Norwegian. The intention was that the University of Bergen would fill that role. But it did not happen that way.
Another important area was theatre. Hulda Harborg and Klara Semb are central names in this. Both of them were preoccupied with maintaining Norwegian dance traditions and with developing them further. Hulda Garborg was especially fired by traditional folk dancing which, on the basis of the theories of the time, she thought had existed in the Norwegian Middle Ages, but had disappeared during the period of colonisation by Denmark. She travelled to the Faeroe Islands to fetch dancers back to Norway. But after giving it some thought she changed the dances. This work was continued by Klara Semb who created new folk dance forms, not only set to medieval ballads, but also to Norwegian lyrics of older and recent date. Critical to the work on the folk dances was the demonstration of the dances, so that people could become interested in taking them up. Gradually dramatisations of folk songs, dances and the rural environment were developed. This turned out to be the first shoot of what was later to become the Norwegian theatre. After this theatre groups were established in almost all the youth societies and they performed plays written in the New Norwegian language. In the forefront of the work of establishing a New Norwegian theatre was the Young Farmers’ Society in Bergen. They travelled on a performance tour to Oslo in 1910 with a performance of: “The Crow” . Here they were met with the glowing hatred of western Norway of NILS KJÆR. He wrote in “Aftenposten” the day after:
“…. There were used terms which cannot be assimilated in any other language but Hægstad’s examination nonsense. My only wish is that the west of Norway keeps itself to itself. Do not let us help these broad-headed types to power which will soon be expressed as an eastern Norwegian impudence.”
Today the situation is quite another. The New Norwegian Theatre (in Oslo) is a cultural institution which has demonstrated itself to be extremely sustainable. The same is true of the New Norwegian language as a language of the theatre. Here there is a case of a New Norwegian “high” culture in this area too.
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- Bolstad, I. (1948) Ungdomslagi skyt opp i Hordalandsbygdene. I: Hordaland ungdomslag: 1898-1948. Voss, Hordaland ungdomsslag, s. 15-27.
- Gjengedal, A. (1971) Fram mot ein Landssamskipnad. I: Ung i 75 år: Noregs Ungdomslag 1896-1971. Oslo, Samlaget.
- Riddervold, A. & Ropeid, A. (1984) Popular Diet in Norway and Natural science during the 19th Century. Ethnologia Scandinavica, s. 48-66.
- Slettan, K. (1963) Dei første ungdomslaga. I: Hardanger Ungdomslag 50 år: 1913-1963. Øystese.