Frie ord i Norden? – New perspectives on public sphere

The anthology Frie ord i Norden? [Free speech in the Nordic region?] sheds new light on the development of the public sphere and freedom of expression in the Nordic countries in the 19th century.

Picture of several samples of the book Frie Ord i Norden

Foto: Hemstad

The research project The Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression in the Nordic Countries, 1815-1900 began in 2016 with funding from UiO:Nordic. It was set up as an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Faculties of Law, Humanities, and Theology, the National Library, and the Storting (parliament) Archives. The project has also included participants from a number of other institutions in Norway and the Nordic countries. Earlier this year, the project culminated with the anthology Frie ord i Norden? Offentlighet, ytringsfrihet og medborgerskap 1814-1914 [Free speech in the Nordic region? The public sphere, freedom of expression, and citizenship 1814-1914].

The editors of Frie ord i Norden? and leaders of the project Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression are Ruth Hemstad, historian at the National Library and a researcher associated with the Department of Archeology, Conservation and History, and Dag Michalsen, professor of legal history and dean at the Faculty of Law. The book’s contributors are Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Finnish scholars working in the fields of history, law, history of ideas, and literary studies. Several of them are doctoral research fellows. The combination of contributors underlines the topic’s relevance and scope, and the book and the project both exemplify UiO:Nordic’s interdisciplinary and Nordic nature.

The Nordic perspective

When Ruth Hemstad gave a talk about Frie ord i Norden? at the Gothenburg Book Fair this fall, she emphasized that “freedom of expression has always been limited, and the public sphere has never been equally accessible to everyone.” This sums up the book’s over-arching topic. The anthology considers tensions and conflicts involving the people, the press, literature, laws and courts, the king, parliament, and police that arose in the Nordic countries during the 19th century. The book shows that this development of a public sphere and freedom of speech, contrary to how it is commonly portrayed today, was far from linear and teleological. The editors stress the importance of adopting a Nordic perspective:

By considering the development in individual Nordic countries in context and in relation to one or more neighboring countries, new connections have become apparent. For instance, it has become clear that the Danish-Norwegian laws introduced in 1799, limiting the freedom of the press, had an effect on how the constitutions regulated press freedom in both Norway and Sweden. We have also found that periods of greater press freedom often led to restrictions, because of what was perceived as misuse of this freedom – the term ‘trykkefrekkhet’ (rudeness of the press) was in use as early as the 18th century.

In his review of Frie ord i Norden? in Norsk medietidsskrift, professor Terje Rasmussen at the Department of Media and Communication also stresses the importance of the book’s Nordic perspective. of He writes that the Nordic region yet again proves a fertile context for comparison, since the countries’ family resemblances help make sense of the differences between them.

Interdisciplinary co-operation

The book’s editors, Hemstad and Michalsen, are happy to share their experiences from collaborating on both Frie ord i Norden? and project more generally:

Interdisciplinary co-operation expands and challenges our established ways of thinking, helps us to better understand complex processes, aids us in discovering new connections, and enriches the research process and results. In order to achieve an integrated and seamless interdisciplinarity, it is necessary that we make contact with people from other disciplines and traditions, and take the time to listen and learn from each other.

The editors also highlight the value of including contributions from legal and literary scholars:

This has been important in order to bring to light different sides to this complex history. Luckily, an interest in historical perspectives is not limited to historians!

Interdisciplinarity is a requirement in all of UiO:Nordic’s projects, and according to Hemstad and Michalsen the criteria fit their project like hand in glove. Moreover, many of the participants in their project had previous experiences with interdisciplinary, Nordic collaboration, and wished to expand on this.

Bilde av redaktørene Dag Michalsen og Ruth Hemstad
Editors, Ruth Hemstad and Dag Michalsen. Foto: Hemstad

A nuanced portrayal of a complex development

The various chapters in Frie ord i Norden? deal with specific Nordic countries, as well as overriding Nordic perspectives. Jani Marjanen’s “Gränserna för det offentliga samtalet i Finland 1809-1863 [The Limitations of the Public Conversation in Finland, 1809-1863]” and Marthe Hommerstad’s “Den dømmende offentlighet. Striden om offentlig votering i Høyesterett [The Judicial Public Sphere: The Struggle over Public Voting in the Supreme Court]” are among the examples of the former, while Lars Björnes “Yttrandefriheten i Norden 1815-1914. Teori och praxis [Freedom of Expression in the Nordic Region, 1815-1914: Theory and Practice]” and Thor Inge Rørvik’s “Kateterets ansvar. Noen trekk ved 1800-tallets nordiske universiteter og deres forhold til offentligheten [Responsibility at the Lectern: Some Features of 19th-century Nordic Universities and their Relationship to the Public Sphere]” are among the chapters that consider the broader Nordic context.

The chapters that focus on particular countries also include Nordic perspectives, however, and the result is a depiction of a coherent, but varied, Nordic development. The Nordic region is also put in an international context in the chapters “Vilkår for skandinaviske og sør-tyske parlamenters offentlighet i første halvdel av 1800-tallet [Conditions for the Public Sphere of the Parliaments in Scandinavia and Southern Germany in the First Half of the 19th Century]” by Morten Nordhagen Ottosen, and “Trykte amerikabrev og transatlantisk folkelig offentlighet, ca. 1840-1860 [Printed America Letters and the Transatlantic Public Sphere, ca. 1840-1860]” by Henrik Olav Mathiesen.

The book also provides new perspectives on a number of historical events, for instance in Torbjörn Nilsson’s chapter “Torgslaget 1829. Ny tolkning på klassisk mark [The Battle of the Square, 1829: New Interpretation on Classic Territory].” Terje Rasmussen notes that this kind of book is expected to shed new light on familiar events, and points to Nilsson’s chapter as an excellent example of this.

In “Et bidrag til kvinners selvstendighet. Skandinaviske forutsetninger for Hartvig Nissens pikeskole [A Contribution to Women’s Independence: Scandinavian Conditions for Hartvig Nissen’s Girls’ School,” one of two chapters dedicated to the rights and opportunities of women, Merethe Roos examines how Hartvig Nissen’s establishment of his girls’ school in Oslo in 1849, was influenced by his time as a student in Copenhagen, as well as his familiartiy with Swedish debates on education. Marius Wulfsberg’s chapter “Kvinnefrigjøring og offentlighet i Norden på 1850-tallet. Om Mathilde Fibigers Clara Raphael og Camilla Colletts Amtmandens Døttre [Women’s Liberation and the Public Sphere in the Nordic Region in the 1850s: On Mathilde Fibiger’s Clara Raphael and Camilla Colletts Amtmandens Døttre]” considers women’s increasing participation in the literary public sphere, and the Danish and Norwegian receptions of and debates about two controversial, anonymously published novels which both presented critical views on marriage and women’s lack of opportunities.

Kai Østberg’s chapter “Satirikeren som selvforakter. Spydighetens politikk og psykologi i kampen for norskdommen – fra Wergeland til Vinje [The Satirist’s Self-Contempt: The Politics and Psychology of Sarcasm in the Struggle for Norwegianness – from Wergeland to Vinje]” also focuses on the role of literature in the public sphere. Østberg considers how the satirists Henrik Wergeland and Aasmund Olavsson Vinje, from their position outside the public sphere of the civil servant state, experienced the power structures of the time on a personal level.

In his review, Rasmussen calls the book an absolute necessity for those attempting to understand politics, debates, and constitutional circumstances in Norway and the Nordic region in the 19th century. He also believes that this publication will prove of great interest to researchers in media studies, yet again confirming that researchers from separate fields can learn much from each other. The interdisciplinary conversation continues.

The book presented at Bokmässan, Gøteborg

Hemstad presented the book “Frie Ord i Norden?” at Bokmässan in Gøteborg 29.09.2019. You can see the full presentation here. (14.34 min. youtube).

If you are interested in buying the book, you can see this link.

/University of Oslo Public Release. View in full here.