Norway, with its demanding topography and climate, is a gem on the surface of the planet, and a challenge that the early people set out to conquer.
The first people that came here were hunter-gatherers. As the millennia passed, and the population grew, the Norwegians developed an identity and a culture.
First, we give you a list of the 15 main eras related to Norwegian human history – and then a brief introduction to each historical period:
- The latest ice age
- The Stone age
- The Bronze age
- The Iron age
500 BC-AD 1050
- The High middle ages
- The Late middle ages
- The Early modern period
- Norway reborn as a sovereign state
- Norway in union with Sweden
- Full independence at last
- Prosperity, war and depression
- World War 2 and occupation
- The post World War 2 era
- Transformation and neoliberalism
- Technology and globalisation
1. The latest ice age
115,000 – 10,000 BC
Over the last 2.5 million years, there have been as many as 30 ice ages. The latest period stretched between 115,000 and 10,000 BC. The glaciers were like gigantic, slow-moving bulldozers, transforming the underlying rock formations completely; creating the fjords, the mountain peaks, the valleys, and so much more of what is the Norwegian landscape today.
During the ice age, there were long intermittent stages when the ice melted, and flora and fauna returned. Such milder periods could last for centuries. Norwegian archaeologists have found remains of both the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros dating back to this time.
2. The Stone age
10,000 – 1800 BC
When the ice finally melted, plants and animals settled more long-term – and with them came the first humans. They were hunter-gatherers and lived a nomadic life, following the prey and the seasons. First, they populated the emerging coastline, then they moved further inland. Around 2400 BC, a section of the population took up farming and created more permanent settlements, possibly as a result of people migrating in from the south. The hunter-gatherers and the farmers lived side-by-side, and utilised different parts of the land and its resources. Tools and weapons from this early era were made of stone, wood, or animal bones.
3. The Bronze age
1800 – 500 BC
The main building blocks of bronze – copper and tin – is naturally rare in the Norwegian landscape. Therefore, the number of bronze objects found by Norwegian archaeologists is relatively small. During the Bronze age, the difference between the farmers and the hunter-gatherers became more defined. External influence kept coming in, from what today is Denmark and Europe to the south, and Russia and Finland to the north-east. It is in this era, that the Sami hunter-gatherer culture emerges. Rock carvings from the Bronze age give us information about people’s way of life and spiritual beliefs.
4. The Iron age
500 BC – AD 1050
In Norway, the first traces of iron date back to 400-300 BC. The country has significant iron resources. Making tools and weapons from this new metal was a significant step forward. The Scandinavians traded with its neighbours to the east, and the Europeans to the south, including the Romans. The farming communities became more structured and socially divided. It was probably during this period that people started thinking in terms of land ownership. The rune alphabet appeared, and rune inscriptions contribute greatly to our modern-day understanding of the Iron age language, mindset, and religious beliefs.
The climate worsened and plagues and other illnesses haunted the population. Old Norse myths about fimbulwinter (the great winter) and ragnarok (the end of the world) may have their roots in Iron age events.
During the AD 700s, the characteristics of the Viking age emerged, with maritime and settlement expansion, increased trade, and the founding of more established trading locations. One distinct feature was the typical Viking ship. It was fast and able to sail across vast oceans. The raid on the island monastery of Lindisfarne in AD 793, off the coast of Northumbria in England, is often defined as the start of the Viking era. The Vikings are known as aggressive and murderous brutes, but back home they were also farmers, hunters and fishermen, and excellent traders and explorers. The Vikings kept slaves – in Norwegian known as treller.
Written sources emerged during the latter part of the iron age, and the population increased. Laws and the concept of government developed, and regional assemblies – things – were established. Harald Hardråde – Harald Hardrada – is regarded as the last Viking king. He fell during a battle at Stamford Bridge in AD 1066, when attempting to conquer England. It was also towards the end of this era that the Christian Catholic faith expanded and gradually replaced the old Norse beliefs. The total population around year AD 1000 was an estimated 100,000 – 200,000.
5. The High middle ages
AD 1050 – 1350
After the Viking era, the local kings and chieftains turned their attention inwards, to the country’s own resources. The region of Trøndelag surfaced as the new political and financial centre, taking over from the west coast. Many churches were built, and a significant number of them – even wooden stave churches – are still standing today.
The population increased and cleared more land, also in less suitable areas. A significant portion of the populace became tenant farmers, leasing farm-units owned by either the crown, the church, or rich landowners. A tenant paid around 1/6 of the farm’s produce as rent. The keeping of slaves gradually disappeared during the AD 1200s, and the group merged into the overall population, making them the forebears of many Norwegians living today.
When King Sigurd Jorsalfar died in AD 1130, the level of conflict intensified, and a period of infighting and civil war followed. This lasted until AD 1240, when King Håkon 4 Håkonsson conquered his last rival, and initiated a century of domestic peace and expansion. Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands were conquered and incorporated into the kingdom.
In the mid-1300s, Norway was at its peak, the population grew steadily, and the society was well established. The total population was an estimated 300,000 – 450,000.
But a firestorm of destruction was on its way – the plague that forever more was to be known as The Black Death. It was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. The disease raged like fire through Asia, Europe and beyond. The plague reached Norway in AD 1349, and within a few months, between a third and a half of the population perished. It was a disaster of biblical proportions. Whole communities disappeared, and Mother Nature reclaimed previously cultivated land. Similar plagues returned repeatedly over the next century.
Read more in Norway folk tales | Pesta and the Black Death
Read more in A Norwegian’s take on the lead-up to the Black Death
6. The Late middle ages
AD 1350 – 1537
The personal loss experienced by those who survived The Black Death was not something they could shake off in their lifetime. Whole communities had to be reestablished and retaught, a process that must have taken generations. The farm rent was down to a quarter of previous levels, and many farms were abandoned.
The Hanseatic League, a powerful confederation of merchant guilds and market towns, originating in Northern Germany, became a substantial economic and political player, also in Norway. The west-coast town of Bergen became their main trading hub, contributing to prosperity along the long-stretched Norwegian coast.
In AD 1397, Norway joined the so-called Kalmar Union, a union between three sovereign states: Norway, Sweden and Denmark, sharing the same monarch. Denmark was the dominant player, and Norway increasingly weaker. In AD 1523, Sweden broke away and chose its own king. Norway did not have the same strength, and ended up losing its independence, almost completely.
Around AD 1500, the Norwegian population was an estimated 140,000-200,000, possibly less than half of what it had been prior to the outbreaks of the great plague.
7. The Early modern period
AD 1537 – 1814
In AD 1537, King Christian 3 of Denmark-Norway embraced the Lutheran Reformation, and the Norwegians went from being Catholics to Protestants. The king confiscated the Catholic Church’s considerable wealth, a welcomed addition to the royal coffers. Norway more or less ceased to exist as a sovereign state and became a province under Denmark.
During the AD 1500s, the authorities worked hard to stem the outbreaks of plague and disease. Gradually, the population started to grow, and people returned to areas that had lain fallow since The Black Death.
There was an increased trade during the Early modern period. Fish and timber were two important commodities, and different types of mines were established, with the silver mine at Kongsberg being the most significant.
In AD 1660, after political unrest, the Danish King Frederik 3 declared himself an absolute monarch of both Denmark and Norway, weakening the position of the nobility and transferring more of the day-to-day running of the country to bureaucrats, answerable to the king only. Power was increasingly centralised in the Danish capital Copenhagen, widening the gap between the bodies of government and the local communities of Norway. In AD 1665, the total population was an estimated 440,000.
During the AD 1600s and the AD 1700s, there was great unrest in the Nordics and the whole North-European region. The Denmark-Norway crown covered the expenses of war by drastically increasing the level of taxes. Norwegian men were ordered to partake as soldiers. Sweden was on the opposite side, and gradually strengthened its position. During the AD 1700s, with the crown’s constant need for resources – and reduced profitability seen by the large landowners – there was a gradual change in the structure of land ownership. Tenant farmers started to buy out the farms their families lived on, and became self-owners.
In AD 1769, Denmark-Norway carried out its first complete population count. The total Norwegian population was 723,618 – and the largest town was Bergen, with 13,735 citizens. 91% of the population lived in rural areas.
During the AD 1700s, there was a growing patriotic sentiment among the Norwegians – and a longing for independence was slowly brewing.
Recommended read Norway population | the 1769 census was the first
8. Norway reborn as a sovereign state
During the Napoleonic wars (AD 1802-1815), Denmark-Norway and Sweden fought on opposite sides. The Danish leadership sided with France, and lost, and had to hand over Norway to Sweden. Excluded from the deal were Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which remained a part of Denmark.
The Norwegians strongly opposed the arrangement, and finally saw an opportunity to break away and recreate Norway as a sovereign state. The Danish Prince Christian Frederik, at the time the Danish governor of Norway, called for an assembly of Norwegian leaders, with the intent to declare independence. On 17 May 1814, a new Norwegian constitution was created, and Christian Frederik was elected king. However, Sweden saw this as a hostile act and the Swedish crown prince, Karl Johan, set out for Norway with his troops and forced through the new union. Prince Christian Frederik left Norway and was no longer king. Later, as fate would have it, he became King Christian VIII of Denmark.
Despite the hostilities, the Swedes allowed Norway to keep its constitution, and the country was again a separate national state, albeit the weaker part in a union. Under the same king, the two countries had a common foreign affairs front, but great autonomy when it came to internal matters. Norway’s new semi-independent status was very different from the situation prior to AD 1814. The country quickly built its own national institutions: a parliament, a government, a central administration, courts, and a national bank. A university had already been established in AD 1811. In AD 1801, the total population was 883,603.
17 May 1814 is regarded as the birth of the modern-day Norwegian state, although it took almost another hundred years before the Norwegians could declare complete independence.
9. Norway in union with Sweden
AD 1814 – 1905
Norway was still primarily a nation of farmers, fishermen and hunters. In AD 1801, 90% of the population lived in rural areas. All through the century, an improved standard of hygiene, and significant medical progress, resulted in a drastic fall in child mortality. The population increased rapidly, and more than doubled. The growth put a lot of strain on the old ways of life – both socially and economically. Many people moved to the cities and became part of a growing industrialisation, powered by Norway’s many waterways and waterfalls. In order to feed an increasingly larger portion of the population not working the land or the sea, more efficient agricultural methods had to be found.
From the mid-1800s onwards, somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million Norwegians emigrated, primarily to North America. Only Ireland and Italy had more emigrants per capita.
It was also during this period that the building of roads and railroads improved communication and the movement of goods. The Norwegian communities were revitalised, and there was a political and cultural awakening. Through the implementation of parliamentary democracy, in AD 1884, the government was forced to answer to the Norwegian Parliament only – Stortinget – and not the king. It was yet another step towards full independence. The process led to the creation of Norway’s two first political parties:
- Venstre – an alliance between the trading classes and the self-owning farmers (the name means left in Norwegian)
- Høyre – the party for the civil servants (the name means right in Norwegian)
In AD 1900, the total population was 2,240,032.
As the AD 1800s came to an end, the Norwegian identity and desire for independence had become unstoppable. In 1905, the Norwegian parliament embarked on a journey that would drastically change the country’s historical path once again.
10. Full independence at last
Norway’s full independence came in AD 1905, and was the culmination of a process that had lasted for several decades. As its chosen tool to force through a change, the Norwegian parliament – Stortinget – passed a law early in the year, declaring that Norway henceforth would be master of its own foreign affairs and establish its own diplomatic corps. This was in breach of the AD 1814 union agreement with Sweden, and King Oscar 2 refused to approve. As a result, the king no longer had the support of the Norwegian parliament, and could no longer appoint a legitimate Norwegian government and conduct his role as king of Norway.
On 7 June 1905, the Storting unilaterally declared independence. Negotiations with Sweden ensued, but the process had reached the point of no return. On 26 October 1905, King Oscar 2 formally, and reluctantly, gave up his claim to the Norwegian throne.
As a conciliatory gesture, Norway first offered the Norwegian throne to King Oscar’s younger son, Prince Carl (AD 1861-1951) – King Oscar refused. The Norwegians then looked towards Denmark and a second Prince Carl. It should be noted that the Danish Prince Carl was the grandson of the Swedish King Oscar 1, King Oscar 2’s father, so it was definitely a family affair, no matter what the outcome.
After 500 years of Danish and Swedish dominance, the Norwegians were free at last.
11. Prosperity, war and depression
AD 1905 – 1940
On 18 November 1905, after a supportive referendum, the Norwegian parliament unanimously elected the Danish Prince Carl as the country’s new king. Carl took the historical name King Haakon 7, and gave his only child, Prince Alexander, an equally Norwegian royal name: Olav. Haakon’s queen consort, Queen Maud, was the youngest daughter of King Edward 7 of the United Kingdom, and thus the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Haakon, Maud and Olav arrived on 25 November 1905; a cold and windswept winter day. The coronation took place on 22 June 1906, in the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim – the burial church of the Viking king St. Olav.
With its newfound independence, Norway experienced a surge in energy and development. In all areas of society, enthusiasts pushed forward in educating the country and building a strong new nation.
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Norway, with its resources and access to waterfalls and their power, experienced great industrial development in the years that followed. Agriculture and fishing were motorised and modernised. The principles of national control and ownership of natural resources were defined and implemented during this early period, something that has greatly contributed to the wealth experienced by the Norwegian population in more recent times.
The early AD 1900s was also a period of great social change, with new laws protecting workers, and generally improved living standards.
Norway chose a neutral position during World War 1, but still suffered losses and hardship. In AD 1930, the Great Depression hit Norway with full force. The labour movement and the labour party – Arbeiderpartiet – became Norway’s largest political party.
Despite a second attempt at staying neutral, it was from a weakened position that Norway was about to become a pawn in Hitler-Germany’s game of war and World War 2.
Recommended read: Norwegian royal family | the secret of Queen Maud’s coffin
12. World War 2 and occupation
AD 1940 – 1945
On 9 April 1940, German forces attacked Norway in the early hours of the morning. The Norwegian armed forces bravely attempted to stave off the attack. But they were in no way prepared for this monumental task. King Haakon 7 and the royal family, the parliament, and the government quickly fled the capital Oslo, heading north. Less than 2 months later, the king and his government left the northern city of Tromsø, bound for London, after refusing to accept German demands of surrender. The events during this period are dramatised in the film The King’s Choice.
5 years of occupation and hardship followed for the Norwegian population. The king and the government did what it could to keep up morale from London, and worked in secret to build a resistance movement within Norway’s borders. The covert work of the resistance can be seen dramatised in the film Max Manus: Man of War and the mini-series The Heavy Water War.
In October AD 1944, Soviet forces entered Norway’s northernmost region, Finnmark, heralding the beginning of the end of the war. But the German’s did not give up without a fight: most buildings and infrastructure in the regions of Finnmark and Troms were burned and destroyed, in an attempt to slow the Russians down. Most of the northern population was evacuated south. On 8 May 1945, the German’s capitulated and the leadership of the resistance movement assumed temporary control. King Haakon returned to Oslo on 7 June 1945 and was met by ecstatic crowds.
More than 46,000 Norwegians were punished after the war. 25 people were executed, among them Vidkun Quisling, who was Nazi-Germany’s puppet prime minister, and whose last name has become a noun used all over the world, meaning a traitor.
Once again, the Norwegians took on the task of rebuilding the nation – and a time of great and shared prosperity was in the offing.
13. The post World War 2 era
AD 1945 – 1970
A post-war bipartisan spirit and communal energy lifted Norway into a whole new level of activity and development. The labour party – Arbeiderpartiet – governed for 20 of the 25 following years. The labour movement was instrumental in creating the modern-day welfare state that Norway is so renowned for today.
King Haakon 7 passed away in AD 1957, a hero from both the events in AD 1905, and for his role as a beacon of hope during World War 2. His son, the new King Olav 5, became a flag-bearer of the new era, and a much-respected sovereign. A lot of effort was put into recreating the communities in the northern regions of Troms and Finnmark. The rationing of goods and food lasted for many years. In AD 1949, as a result of the mounting threat of a cold war, Norway became part of NATO and established a close connection to the western powers.
The post-war mixed economy was a system where the workers, the state, and the capital owners were more equal partners. The industrial activity increased significantly, and more and more people moved from the countryside to the cities. The number of people working in agriculture and commercial fishing went from 42% to 15%. The new era heralded a great shift, where Norway went from being mainly a rural society, to having an urban majority.
Recommended read: Norway | the last workhorse at Sandaker farm
The emerging welfare state offered child support, sick pay, free public health services, improved social services, unemployment benefits, and much more. Housing quality and the social living standards improved significantly, and schooling was geared up for a prosperous future.
The discovery of oil outside Norway’s long-stretched coastline in the late 1960s, paired with Norway’s focus on national control over and ownership of its natural resources, gave a massive boost to the Norwegian economy in the decades that followed. Instead of lining the pockets of the rich capital owners, a large portion of the wealth was shared by the entire population.
14. Transformation and neoliberalism
AD 1970 – 1990
During the AD 1970s, both an increased female participation in the labour market, and the green movement, were causes firmly added to the agenda. There was a heightened focus on maternity leave, access to kindergarten, and maternity benefits.
In AD 1972, there was a fierce debate on whether Norway should or should not become part of the European Economic Community (EEC), which later became the EU. Through a referendum, 53.5% rejected the move. The same thing happened in a second attempt in AD 1994.
Throughout the AD 1970s, the bipartisan atmosphere started to wear off. The economic development slowed down and there was an emerging doubt about the efficiency of the regulated post-war-model. This led to a significant political shift in the AD 1980s, where many previously regulated areas of society were liberalised: like housing, banking, mass media, and more.
15. Technology and globalisation
AD 1990 – today
The liberalisation and financial speculation culture of the 1980s led to crash-landings in many sectors. Norway’s oil finances helped ease the transition into a consolidated next phase. A more nuanced concept of liberalism, paired with the core ideas of the earlier regulated society, gave improved and more stable results. With a growing population and public sector, Norway pushed through significant reforms in several areas: public structure and organisation, welfare, health care, tax, policing, public services, and more. To avoid over-heating the economy, the enormous communal oil wealth was placed in the Government Pension Fund Global, one of the world’s largest investment funds.
When the Norwegians rejected the opportunity to join the EU in AD 1994, the country chose instead to secure its access to the single market through a comprehensive trade agreement. The new millennium brought a digital revolution that transformed everyday life, changing both social behaviour and political participation.
The Norwegians have come a long way since the appearance of the first hunter-gatherers. Still, that early part of history is very much a profound part of the Norwegian spirit – and the Norwegians’ connection to the land, the sea, and the majestic force of the Nordic elements.
Recommended read: Stabbur | the food storehouse on the old Norwegian farm
Main source: Store norske leksikon – snl.no
BC = before Christ | AD = anno domini = after Christ