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Reformation without the People. Catholic Norway before and after the Reformation

(Reformasjon uten folk. Det katolske Norge i før- og etterreformatorisk tid)



The Reformation in Norway took place as a result of a Danish royal decree in 1536/37, and from then on the state and its citizens in the Danish-Norwegian double-monarchy were obliged to profess the Evangelical-Lutheran faith. In this process, Norway lost its independence and was united with Denmark. To this day, the story of Reformation is told of as a kind of “victory narrative”, wherein the impression is often given that people in general quickly and calmly slipped into the new religious fold. In this version, both the official ecclesiastical resistance, as well as that of the “populace” have been marginalised and made invisible. The same also applies to a large extent to the organised counter-reformation work that in Norway’s case extended well into the first half of the 17th Century, and which was the historical background why the Constitution of the new independent nation of Norway in 1814 placed a prohibition on the Jesuits (not abolished from the Constitution until 1956). However, it was from this point that the first reformation work began. It was a long process that could be said not to have ended before well into the 19th century – if at all.

This religious shift dictated a break with the religious and cultural practices and beliefs, which for centuries had been entrenched in the people’s perception of reality. Although the official religion was Evangelical-Lutheran, these Catholic beliefs and practices were not easily eradicated. They survived for a long time in the popular culture. The Reformation represented a conscious break with a past and its beliefs and values, but such a break was never fundamental.



In 1736, the Danish-Norwegian theologian Erik Pontoppidan (1698-1764) wrote in the so-called Fejekosten (The Broom) of the need for a cleansing of “culture in general” from “paganism and Papism” so that people may be led to the true faith. The book was written on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Reformation. The observations made by Pontoppidan clearly show that the new Evangelical-Lutheran doctrine had not necessarily broken through in Norway, or that it had not immediately established itself in the hearts and minds of the people.

The purpose of my book project is, therefore, to look at the Catholic Church and Catholicism in Norway before, during and in the first centuries after the Reformation. The objective is to present a different story and a different perspective on both the church’s organised resistance and “popular” opposition, as well as the survival of Catholic beliefs and practices. The latter also discusses the importance of what would later come to be defined as “popular” religious ideologies, beliefs and practices, and how official sources attempted to redefine the Catholic “faith” as “superstition”.

The perspective of the book is a cultural-historical one, opening up for a broader and more comprehensive perspective than a church-historical or a history of ideas perspective – which to date has been the usual approach to the Reformation and its history in Scandinavia. Such a perspective makes it possible to take notice of phenomena such as “popular” beliefs and traditions and to look at them in context with other cultural and historical factors. It may in fact be correct to argue that Norwegian popular culture was for a long time a Catholic culture.

The Reformation established and developed a variety of cultural and discursive strategies to transform and reinterpret religious and cultural expression, beliefs and ideologies. This is a question of “re-defining” through reinterpretation or new-interpretation. This could be about the relationship to “Papism” and forms of Catholic traditions and “popular religion”. An element of this is also the demonising of previously accepted (and Catholic) beliefs and rituals, where e.g. questions pertaining to the Catholic tendencies of “folk religion” and connections with a witchcraft complex are an interesting field of study.

The study of the unofficial religiousness and of “folk religion” concerns how the actions and ideologies live on, and are negotiated and shaped in the tension between the old and the new. This has long been an overlooked part of the history of the Reformation in Scandinavia. In this context, I will also try to say something about why the “old religion” was able to live on and why this largely has been overlooked in the writing of history.


[The volume has been co-published by St. Olav Forlag, Oslo, Norway and The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, Oslo, Norway.]


See: https://www.stolavbok.no/produkt/65325731/reformasjon-uten-folk