News From Old Uppsala

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , , .]

Magnus Alkarp defended his PhD thesis in Uppsala on 21 November. I just read the book, and my opinion is that Alkarp definitely deserves his PhD. In fact, I believe that he probably deserves two such degrees: one in the history of ideas for the present book, and one in archaeology for his as yet unpublished gazetteer of archaeological features and known interventions into the earth at Old Uppsala. But his book was accepted as a PhD thesis by the Department of Archaeology in Uppsala, and the Department of the History of Ideas is unlikely to be equally forthcoming with a manuscript on archaeology. Most disciplines value their academic distinctiveness higher than many Swedish archaeology departments currently do theirs. So by submitting the book where he did, Alkarp has sadly closed his road to a double doctorate, at least until he’s written another big book on the history of ideas.

The book covers the history of scholarship and general ideas about Old Uppsala, largest village of Uppland in the Middle Ages, 12th century archepiscopal seat and the Lake Mälaren area’s main assembly and pagan cult site during the Viking Period. If Sweden has a historical heart, which is debatable, then this is it. More exactly, the book concentrates on the two craziest periods in the site’s history of scholarship, the 17th century and then the 19th-20th centuries, leaving the comparatively rationalistic 18th century out.

Though endlessly fascinating to someone with my interests, the book does have its weaknesses. Most irksome is a tendency in the early chapters to knowledge relativism. I really hate it when a historian of ideas is so aloof to the issues people have discussed that you get the feeling that the historian in question doesn’t think there are any correct answers to questions scholars once debated and still debate. But this tendency soon passes, and for most of the book Alkarp comes across as a rationalist and realist. Then I must say that I find the man’s flippant tone, his wobbly Swedish (orsaken till varför det hände, man var intresserade etc.) and his tendency to lose himself briefly in irrelevant anecdotes to be significant blemishes on the work. But still, this is one of the few real page-turners I’ve come across in Swedish archaeology. It’s 450 pages of painstakingly annotated and contextualised gossip about big-name colleagues and famous debates, many of which are still in living memory.

And it’s not just a compilation of earlier writers. Alkarp examines the motivations and relationships of all the main characters, their enmities and friendships, their political leanings and the ways that all this influenced their work. He offers major new discoveries about people like Olaus Rudbeckius Sr. and Sune Lindqvist (one of them reported to the Swedish Secret Service on Nazi activities and hid Jewish students in his basement), and brings unbelievably exotic archive records and newspaper clippings to the discussion.

I am in awe. If the guy had only had a copy editor. And someone to make an alphabetical index!

Alkarp, Magnus. 2009. Det Gamla Uppsala: Berättelser & Metamorfoser. Occasional papers in archaeology 49. Dept of Archaeology, University of Uppsala. ISBN 978-91-506-2095-5.

Update 5 December: With Magnus Alkarp’s permission, I publish the book’s English summary under the fold. It concentrates on issues that the book’s Swedish main text adresses only obliquely. Not how scholars have thought about Old Uppsala in later centuries, but what happened there during the Viking Period.

Continue reading


Medieval Genius Sculptor Vaporised


Names are one of the things that separate historical and archaeological thinking from each other. History is full of people of whom little is known beyond their names and perhaps a royal or ecclesiastical title, yet still they are considered to be historical personages. Meanwhile, a dead person found in a nameless prehistoric grave can never attain the same historical stature regardless of the objects preserved with the body and the scientific data extracted from the bones.

This fixation with names was once a characteristic of art historians as well. One of the differences between Medieval and Renaissance art is that in the latter era, much more art can be attributed to named artists. But still, there are a few named Medieval ones too. And they have acted as magnets for attribution of anonymous masterpieces.

Medieval art in Sweden is largely synonymous with church art, of which we have unusually large amounts preserved because our Reformation was not strongly iconoclastic. And there are two huge names: Albertus Pictor (that is, “Albert the painter”, born ~1440 1480) from Immenhausen in Germany and Bernt Notke from Lübeck, also in Germany (born ~1435). Both were painters, both died in 1509, both have left signed preserved pieces of work, and the vibrant style of Albert and his workshop is unmistakeable. I recently learned that though he oversaw the frescoes in more than 30 churches, he died at about age 29. He painted those churches at the typical age of an art history undergrad!

But Bernt Notke, it turns out, is a different kind of guy entirely. Reading the new book by one of Sweden’s best Medieval art historians, Peter TÃ¥ngeberg (whom I like to call an archaeologist of sculpture, which is intended as a compliment), I learned that Notke is one of those attribution magnets. And a hollow one to boot.

One of Sweden’s finest pieces of Medieval art is St. George and the Dragon in Stockholm cathedral. It is an anonymous work. In 1901/06 influential art historian Johnny Roosval attributed it to Bernt Notke. This attribution stuck: it’s part of a good Swedish education to “know” that Notke sculpted St. George. And since that time, innumerable fine anonymous pieces of art have been attributed to the genius behind St. George — Notke.

But, TÃ¥ngeberg points out, there are in fact only three pieces of work that are known to be Notke’s either through signatures or church archives. They are a triumphal crucifix in Lübeck Cathedral from 1477, a reredos (altarskÃ¥p) in Århus cathedral from 1479 and a reredos in Tallinn’s All Saints’ Church from 1483. And when you look at them you find some interesting facts.

  1. Notke’s three works are very dissimilar from each other and must have been made by a group of artisans under his direction. (Hardly surprising, as Notke never claimed to be a sculptor.) This means that it is impossible to identify and characterise Notke’s style.
  2. All three works are rather mediocre pieces, far below the level of mastery seen in St. George in Stockholm.

Peter Tångeberg masterfully shows that St. George was not made by Notke or any other artist from Lübeck. Its only real parallels are found in painted religious sculpture from the Burgundian area in the southern Netherlands, where extremely little art of this period survives. In fact, a previously discounted 17th century author reports that the sculpture was ordered from Antwerp.

In any case, there is no longer any good reason to put a name to the people who created St. George and the Dragon. And the genius Bernt Notke, a central figure in North European art history, has simply evaporated, poor fellow.

Update same evening: Forget everything I said about Albert’s age. All wrong! Thanks for setting me straight, Ismene.

Check out Peter TÃ¥ngeberg’s paper on re-worked Madonna sculptures with updated faces. And read his new book, Wahrheit und Mythos — Bernt Notke und die Stockholmer St.-Georgs-Gruppe. Even if you don’t read German, get it for the pictures.

[More blog entries about , , , ; , , , .]

Gay Men Allowed to Donate Blood (in Theory)

AIDS was discovered in gay men and the virus is more easily transmitted through anal than vaginal intercourse. For this reason, gay men (defined as “men who have sex with men”) have long been forbidden to donate blood in Sweden. Likewise, people who go to bed with a new hetero partner must wait three months before donating blood again.

Now the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare has decided to change the rules. A bit. Gay men are now allowed to donate blood. If the last time they had sex with a man was more than a year ago. So you’re only allowed to donate blood if you’re gay in the abstract, not in practice.

I don’t know what to think here. The changed rules are certainly more symbolic than practical in effect. But the virus is much more common among gay men than among heteros. And among blood donors who have showed up as positive in HIV screening, gay men are also strongly over-represented. (But they’re not allowed to donate in the first place, so I don’t know where those data come from.)

Still, regardless of who has it more and who has it less, the virus is very uncommon overall in Sweden, and those infected get good treatment that keeps their infectiousness way, way down. I don’t know what’s the bigger risk here: people dying from lack of donated blood or people contracting HIV from an infected blood bag.

[More blog entries about , , , , , , ; , , , , .]