Denmark and Europe: the importance of the long view
Medieval scholar Alastair Matthews wonders if border controls are a sign that we are forgetting our cultural past.
Published: 13 May 2016 10:11 CEST
The author's "dismal" view at Copenhagen Airport. Photo: Alastair Matthews
The picture at the railway station in Copenhagen Airport is by now so familiar that it is easy to forget that things were ever any different.
That there was not a stark grey fence keeping the lines for Sweden and Denmark apart. That it was possible to simply walk onto a train to Malmö without being herded around barriers so that each and every passenger can have their ID checked. That it was possible to get to, well, just about anywhere west of Copenhagen by rail without the lottery of whether they are or are not going to run the shuttle you now need to make that connection at the Central Station.
This is the reality for me, and probably many other expats, of how the process of returning ‘home’ begins these days, and it all seems that bit more dismal just after 10pm at night, in the dark, especially when power trouble has left the entire Swedish platform thronged apocalyptically with travellers from end to end in the gloom.
It’s a far cry from the concept of a Europe where freedom of movement across borders was something to take as a given. The way that things have changed is, perhaps, reflected also in the content of the official Danish language course that I’m doing online. It places rather a lot of emphasis on being glad to work and tolerant of non-traditional families – so much emphasis, in fact, that a cynic might think it presupposes that people coming to this country will be neither of those things.
The debates about immigration, the refugee crisis, and national identities that lie behind these experiences have, like the experiences themselves, become almost a part of life in the recent past.
What we often seem to lose sight of as a result, though, is that they did not appear out of nowhere, but are really just one part of much longer historical processes that reach back far beyond the world of 21st century Denmark.
This has a particular resonance for me because I came to Odense to work on a research project about cultural contact and exchange around the Baltic in the Middle Ages. It’s the kind of topic that can sound very distant, even in academic circles, yet being here has really made me connect with it, and realize that the questions I’m looking at are still being lived out in the here and now.
It would be wrong to idealize those earlier times with a sweeping claim that they were somehow more just, more enlightened when it came to such things. The very real political tensions that existed between the Danes and their southern neighbours, for instance, are palpable in historical writing from northern Germany.
What I find interesting instead is the fact that there are glimpses of a world that was shaped by movement on many levels without the same borders that exist now. That could be the case with people, as when different languages and their speakers, ‘incomers’ and ‘natives’, co-existed in medieval Tallinn.
It was also the case with stories such as the tale of a mysterious knight travelling in a boat drawn by a swan. One of the many routes by which this narrative crossed medieval Europe began with a lost French text in which it was included. That text was then translated in Norway, before being adapted again to produce a Danish chronicle.
The Swan Knight stories were, moreover, not unrelated to the stories of the Swan Children that were similarly widespread long before finding a way into Hans Christian Andersen’s 1838 fairytale 'The Wild Swans'…
Somehow this kind of openness and fluidity, not yet quite so encumbered by rival national traditions as might later be the case, is a reassuring concept to have in mind when moving through the present-day world. It is something we would do well not to culturally forget.
Alastair Matthews is a modern-day itinerant scholar, currently Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Centre for Medieval Literature at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. He tweets as @timesresonant and blogs at timesresonant.wordpress.com.
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