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Deviant Burials: Societal Exclusion of Dead Outlaws in Medieval Norway

Deviant Burials: Societal Exclusion of Dead Outlaws in Medieval Norway

Deviant Burials: Societal Exclusion of Dead Outlaws in Medieval Norway

By Anne Irene Riisøy

COLLeGIUM: Studies across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol.18 (2015)

Abstract: In Norway, an outlaw was “placed outside the law” and, after the introduction of Christianity in the eleventh century, the worst kinds of outlaws, perpetrators described in terms revolving around the vargr and the níðingr, were denied burial in the churchyard. Such people had committed their crimes in an unmanly and stealthy way. Additionally, they may have avoided taking responsibility for their actions. Such behaviour made an otherwise redeemable act irredeemable.

This norm for proper conduct is firmly rooted in pre-Christian notions, and the Church used it as a platform to make it easier for the populace to understand that whereas most people belonged within the churchyard, others clearly did not. With some modifications during the high Middle Ages, typically when additional categories of criminals were excluded from Christian burial, this principle carried through well into the early modern period. Documents which can tell us how these rules worked out in practice are few and far between, but are enough to show that the Church tried to ensure that the worst outlaws remained out of the churchyard. The outlaws’ bodies may have been buried at the place of execution, typically close to the gallows, or at the shore or under heaps of stones far away from settlements.

Introduction: In Viking Age and medieval Norway, an outlaw was “placed outside the law”, a loss of legal protection which had several consequences. An outlaw might be expelled from a legal province or from the country, forfeit property and risk being killed by anyone with impunity. The concept and applicability of outlawry changed over time.

The introduction of Christianity brought about alterations; for example, outlaws were denied burial in the churchyard, which will be the topic of this article. The defined and enclosed churchyard implies that someone controlled that particular space and access to it, and I will ask why exactly outlaws were denied Christian burials, who controlled this process and where deceased outlaws were buried.

This article will cover a long chronological span, and hence touch upon various “cultures” of death, which were influenced by both heathen and Christian ways of thinking. The focus will primarily be on the Middle Ages, which in Norway lasted from approximately the early eleventh century to the coming of the Reformation in 1537. To a certain extent, this study will delve into the Viking Age because the rules on exclusion of outlaws evidenced in the earliest Norwegian Christian laws have found inspiration in pre-Christian provisions on outlawry. Hence rules which placed some categories of people outside the sphere of the good Christian dead were based not only on Christian notions of life after death, but were also very much rooted in a heathen secular way of thinking about the punishment of criminals in this world. This combination of various legal and religious notions was probably facilitated by the fact that before, during, and after the Middle Ages, the populace at large saw no clear demarcation lines between the living and the dead, between flesh and soul.


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