Spinning the Revolt. The Assassination and Sanctification of an 11th-Century Danish King

Spinning the Revolt. The Assassination and Sanctification of an 11th-Century Danish King

By Kim Esmark

Rebellion and resistance, edited by Henrik Jensen (Plus-Pisa University Press, 2009)

Abstract: The first recorded social revolt in the history of Denmark took place in the summer of 1086 when peasants and magnates rose against King Knud IV and killed him in a church. A few years after the assassination Knud was declared a martyr saint and a papally approved cult was established at his tomb. As argued by Carsten Breengaard the sanctification of the unpopular king must be understood as an attempt on behalf of the Danish clergy to criminalize the revolt and sacralise royal authority with the aim of protecting the Church against the effects of social and political violence. Building upon Breengaard’s work this chapter explores the particular ritual and discursive strategies employed by the clergy in their efforts to promote King Knud’s holiness. It also discusses to what extent the Church actually succeeded in ‘spinning’ the revolt and controlling the ways contemporaries and later generations would interpret the rebellion and its legitimacy.

Introduction: Rebellions, like all other historical events, are always more than just material occurrences; they are also objects of cultural interpretation. To grasp fully the impact or Wirkungsgeschichte of any social or political revolt it is necessary to consider its symbolic dimension: the way it is perceived, interpreted, evaluated, negotiated, framed, represented, remembered, reconstructed and narrated by conflicting agencies. Rulers and rebels, allies and antagonists, contemporaries and later generations all struggle to define the aims, motives and legitimacy of a particular revolt and to impose on society and history a particular and particularist vision of what happened. In this process power (disobeying children, street rallies, guerrilla attacks, killing of kings) is inextricably connected to culture (interpretation, legitimation, narrativization) and any attempt to understand any revolt must necessarily take account of both.

This is probably obvious if one thinks of recent examples – socialist revolutions of the 20th century, the students’ rebellion of 1968, the Palestinian intifada, etc. – but the logic is of course the same when it comes to earlier periods even if media, communication structures and legitimation criteria were very different in, say, the Middle Ages than today. In this chapter I hope to illustrate this by going way back in time to have a look at the first recorded social revolt in Denmark and the struggle over its interpretation.

In 1086 a coalition of peasants and magnates rose against the Danish king, Knud IV, and most spectacularly killed him in the church of St Alban in the city of Odense. Knud’s controversial rule had caused considerable discontent within large parts of the population and many, if not most, seem to have regarded the assassination of the king as basically justified. Not the clergy, however. To them the act of killing a Christian monarch inside the holy sanctuary of a church represented a serious assault on the social order in general and the safety of the Church in particular. The ecclesiastical community therefore sought to take control of the event by fixing it within a specific religious interpretive framework: in 1095, nine years after the killing, clerics elevated the dead king’s body and declared him a martyr saint. In this way they hoped to criminalize the rebellion and the system of social values that had rendered it legitimate. In modern terms we may speak of King Knud’s sanctification as an attempt to spin the revolt.

How then, did one actually ‘spin’ in the late 11th century, and to what extent did the particular ‘spinning’ of the rebellion in 1086 succeed? What sorts of ritual and discursive strategies did the clergy employ to promote their interpretation of the events, and how far did they manage actually to silence other voices? These are the questions I want to pursue in the following.

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