The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350 by Robert Bartlett (1993)

The sub-title is ‘Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350’ and that is very much the central idea I take from this book – that before Europe embarked on its well-known colonial adventures from 1492 onwards, it had already experienced centuries of internal colonisation.

Another book I’ve recently read, Robert Fletcher’s The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD, has prepared my mind for this idea, with its account of the millennium-long process whereby Christianity was spread across the ‘nations’ (such as they were) of Europe, to the pagan peoples and rulers of the fringes. The final part of that book makes it clear that, after the First Crusade (1095-99), as Christianity was spread along the Baltic and into the last bastions of paganism in Eastern Europe, the evangelising became much more violent. It no longer amounted to a much-venerated saint converting a bunch of open-mouthed peasants by healing a sick girl; it was now about armed bands of knights united in an ‘Order’ – the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the Teutonic Order – who waged fierce wars of conquest into the East, forcibly converting the populations they conquered and building imperial castles to hold the territory they’d seized.

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Europe had to colonise itself, before its rulers went on to violently colonise the rest of the world.

Bartlett’s book aims to make you see that a number of scattered events usually treated as separate entities in siloed national histories, were actually all part of One Really Big Pattern: the spread, by conquest, of a centrally organised, Latin, Catholic Christianised state ideology right across Europe, and that this diffusion came from the heart of the old Frankish empire, from the most technologically and ideologically advanced heart of Europe consisting of north-France, north-west Germany and south-east England (after it had been conquered by the Normans in the 1060s).

Thus:

  • The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s was partly a crude seizure of land and resources, but also involved the imposition on Gaelic Christianity of the much more centrally organised Latin Roman version.
  • A hundred years later, Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the 1280s had a similar aim of imposing a strong, centralised, Latinate organisation onto a culture traditionally made of scores of petty princes.
  • The Scots had already undergone a European-style centralising ‘revolution’ under King David I (1124-1153) and so could muster more resources to resist Edward I’s imperial ambitions – but only at the expense of handing over large parts of southern Scotland to settlement by Normans (and Flemings).
  • This period also saw the Reconquista of Spain, the long effort to push the occupying Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, over the centuries from the reconquest of Toledo in 1085 to the recapture of Seville in 1248.
  • It was also the era of the Crusades (1095 to 1291), which imposed Latin, Catholic Christianity on formerly Orthodox territories in the Middle East.
  • Just before the First Crusade began, Norman troops under Roger I conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from the Muslims (complete by 1091).
  • En route to the Holy Land, King Richard I seized Cyprus from its Greek ruler in 1191, transferring it to Latin rule.
  • And the sack of Constantinople in 1204 led directly to the imposition of Latin, Catholic dioceses and bishops over much of the Byzantine Empire.

The same period saw the campaigns to Christianise the remote regions of northern and north-eastern Europe, now collectively referred to as the ‘Northern Crusades’. These included:

  • The Wendish Crusade (1147) against the Wends of north-east Germany and Poland.
  • The Crusade against the Livonians in the north-east Baltic in the 1190s.
  • The Teutonic Knights prolonged campaign to crush and convert the Prussians in the 1250s.
  • And a series of drawn-out campaigns against the pagan Duchy of Lithuania, the last stronghold of paganism in all Europe.

Moreover, this period also saw internal crusades to impose order and uniformity within Latin Christendom – most notoriously against the Cathars, a heretical sect which had followers across the South of France and which was brutally suppressed in the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ from 1209 to 1229 (named for the town of Albi, which was one of the heretical strongholds).

The Frankish expansion

The animation below shows the first 500 years of the spread of Christianity, the loss of the Middle east and Africa to the Muslims in the 700s and 800s, the Christian fightback – permanent in Spain, transient in the Levant – and then the abrupt worldwide explosion of Christianity commencing in 1500. It’s the first 1400 years or so we’re interested in, the fluctuations in and around the Mediterranean, and the period 950 to 1350 that Bartlett is particularly concerned with.

In a host of ways Bartlett identifies this expansion with the Franks, the Gothic tribe which seized Gaul from the Romans in the 500s and quickly established a centralised state which reached its geographical maximum under the legendary Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. I hadn’t realised that at its peak, Charlemagne’s empire was coterminous with Western Christendom (with the exception of the Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as this map shows. It really was an awesome achievement.

Map of Europe around 800 AD

Map of Europe around 800 AD

William of Normandy who conquered Britain in 1066 was a descendant of the Frankish kings. Frankish aristocrats played key roles in all the conquests of the day, against the Moors in Spain and the Saracens in the Levant, in Sicily and Crete and Cyprus, and in the north pressing into Denmark, into Poland and along the Baltic towards Finland and Russia. Bartlett has a nifty diagram showing that by the late Middle Ages, 80% of Europe’s monarchs were descended from the Frankish royal family or Frankish nobles.

No surprise, then, that the word ‘Frank’ began to be used widely as a generic name for the conquerors and settlers all over Europe – the Byzantine Greeks called the incoming Latins ‘the Franks’; a settlement in Hungary was called ‘the village of the Franks’; the newly conquered peoples of Silesia and Moravia had to submit to ‘Frankish law’; Welsh chroniclers refer to incursions by ‘the Franci’; and Irish monks referred to the Anglo-Norman invaders as ‘the Franks’. Similarly, in the Middle East of the Crusader era, Muslim commentators, kings and peoples came to call all Westerners ‘the Franks’. So widespread and famous was this association, that Muslim traders took the name Faranga on their journeys through the Red Sea eastwards, spreading the term as far East as China, where, when westerners arrived hundreds of years later, they were identified as the long-rumoured Fo-lang-ki. (pp.104-105).

Questions and theories

All this prompts three questions:

  1. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to convert the entire continent?
  2. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to be so centralised; why did it feel so obliged to impose uniformity of ritual and language all across the Christian world?
  3. What gave Latin Christian culture its dynamism – the aggressive confidence which would spill out to the Canary Islands (conquered in the early 1400s), to the Caribbean (1490s), to Central America (1520s), along the coast of Africa (first settlements in Mozambique in 1500), to India and beyond?

1. The first of these questions is answered at length in Richard Fletcher’s book, which shows how the Great Commission in St Matthew’s Gospel (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you‘) was interpreted by successive Church authorities to mean, first of all, gaining some converts among the rich in cities around the Roman Empire; then to convert all inhabitants of the cities; then, only slowly, to undertake the task of converting the rural peasants; and only then, in the 700s and 800s, the brave idea of venturing beyond the pale of Romanitas to try and convert pagans.

The second two questions are the ones Bartlett specifically addresses and he approaches them from different angles, examining various theories and sifting a wide range of evidence. I found two arguments particularly convincing:

2. The centralisation of the Catholic Church. This stems from the Gregorian Reforms, a series of measures instituted by Pope Gregory VII from around 1050 to 1080. They banned the purchase of clerical positions, enforced clerical celibacy, significantly extended Canon law to impose uniformity on all aspects of Catholic practice. As Wikipedia puts it, these reforms were based on Gregory’s

conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in his capacity as a divine institution, he is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the Petrine Commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity.

This gathering of power by the papacy is generally thought to have reached its height under the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216). Innocent further extended Canon Law, upheld papal power over all secular rulers, using the Interdict to punish rulers he disagreed with (e.g. King John of England) and he was personally responsible for some of the violent campaigns we’ve listed: Innocent called for Christian crusades to be mounted against the Muslims in the Holy Land and the south of Spain, and against the Cathars in the South of France.

Making Christian belief and practice uniform was part and parcel of the extension of its power by a vigorously confident papacy, a vision of uniformity which echoed and reinforced the tendency of secular rulers to create larger ‘states’ in which they asserted increasingly centralised power and uniform laws.

3. As to the literal force behind the aggressive military confidence, Bartlett has a fascinating chapter about the technology of medieval war. Basically, the Franks had heavy war-horses, heavy body armour, the crossbow and a new design of impenetrable defensive castles and all of these were absent in the conquered territories, the Holy Land, southern Spain, Wales and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These advanced military technologies gave the better-armed Franks victory – at least until their opponents managed to figure out and copy them for themselves. (The Crusades are a different case – fundamentally the Crusaders lost for lack of men and resources.)

But I was drawn to a subtler cause for this great expansion: in the 9th and 10th centuries the laws of inheritance were hazy and patrimonies and estates could be divided among a number of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles and so on. (One aspect of this is the way that Anglo-Saxon kings were chosen by acclamation, not rigid law; and this uncertainty explains the long English civil war following Henry I’s death between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois, which lasted from 1135 to 1153.)

Thus, along with the imposition of clearer laws and rules within the Church went secular attempts in Frankish lands to regularise secular law, and one element of this was to enforce the previously haphazard law of primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. But this new rigour had unexpected consequences – it forced all the other male heirs to go off looking for land.

In a fascinating chapter Bartlett sketches the histories of several aristocratic Frankish families where one son inherited the father’s entire estate and left the other 3 or 4 or 5 well-armed, well-educated, ambitious sons literally homeless and landless. There was only one thing for it – to associate themselves with the nearest campaign of Christianisation and conquest. Thus the de Joinville family from the Champagne region of France spawned sons who fought and won lands in Ireland, in Africa and Syria. The descendants of Robert de Grandmenils from Normandy (d.1050) won lands in southern Italy and Sicily, served the Byzantine Emperor, joined the First Crusade, and ended up building castles in northern Wales.

So a newly rigorous application of the law of primogeniture provided the motive for forcing dispossessed aristocrats to go a-fighting – the newly authoritarian Catholic Church provided a justifying ideology for conquest in the name of uniformity and iron armour, heavy warhorses, the crossbow and castles provided the technology. Taken together these elements at least begin to explain the phenomenal success of the ‘Frankish expansion’.

Other aspects of medieval colonisation

These ideas are pretty clearly expressed in the first three chapters; the remaining nine chapters flesh them out with a host of details examining the impact of the Frankish expansion on every aspect of medieval life: the image of the conquerors as embodied in coins, statutes and charters; the division of time into primitive pagan ‘before’ and civilised Christian ‘after’; the propagandistic literature of conquest (in various romances and epics); the giving of new Latin place names which over-wrote the native names of the conquered – the Arabs, the Irish, the Slavs; the imposition of new Frankish laws and tax codes; the proliferation of New Towns with Western-based charters, and the creation of hundreds of new villages, laid out on logical grid patterns, especially in eastern Europe. (This reminded me of the passage in Marc Morris’s history of Edward I which describes Edward’s creation of New Model Towns on grid plans in Wales (Flint) but also England (Winchelsea)).

Bartlett presents the evidence for the widespread importation from Christian Germany of heavy, iron-tipped ploughs which were much more efficient at turning the soil than the lighter, wooden Slavic ploughs, and thus increased productivity in the new settlements (pp.148-152). This went hand-in-hand with a ‘cerealisation’ of agriculture, as woods were cleared and marshes drained to provide more ploughing land to grow wheat and barley, which in turn led to significant increases in population in the newly settled lands. (Although as with all things human this had unintended consequences, little understood at the time; which is that the pagan predecessors, though fewer in number, had a more balanced diet which included fruit and berries and honey from woodlands – the switch to a cereal-based monoculture increased production but probably led to unhealthier people. Analysis of corpses suggests there was a net loss of stature in humans over the period, with the average height decreasing by about 2 inches between the early and the High Middle Ages.)

Names became homogenised. The Normans imported ‘William’ and ‘Henry’ into the England of ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Aelfric’, and then into the Wales of ‘Llywelyn’ ‘Owain’ and the Ireland of ‘Connor’, ‘Cormac’ and ‘Fergus’. Bartlett shows how these essentially Frankish names also spread east replacing ‘Zbigniew’ and ‘Jarosław’, south into Sicily and even (to a lesser extent) into Spain.

In a move typical of Bartlett’s ability to shed fascinating light on the taken-for-granted, he shows how the centralisation and harmonisation of the Latin church led to the diffusion of a small number of generic saints names. Before about 1100 the churches of the various nations were dedicated to a very wide spectrum of saints named after local holy men in Irish, Welsh, Scots, Castilian, Navarrese, Italian, Greek, Germanic or Polish and so on. But the 1200s saw the rise of a continent-wide popularity for the core gospel names – Mary at the top of the table, followed by Christ (as in Christ Church or Corpus Christi) and then the names of the most popular disciples, John, Peter, Andrew.

The names of individual people as well as the names of their churches, along with many other cultural changes which he describes – all followed this process of homogenisation and Latinisation which Bartlett calls ‘the Europeanisation of Europe’ (chapter 11).

New worlds and the New World

Bartlett doesn’t have to emphasise it but the parallels are clear to see between the colonisation by violence and crusading Christianity of the peripheral areas of Europe in the 1000s to 1300s, and the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s a mind-opening comparison, which works at multiple levels.

For example, many of the charters and decrees about the new European lands proclaimed them ’empty’ virgin land ready to be settled, despite the evidence of native populations living in well-developed (though non-Latin) settlements – just as publicists for the Americas and, later, Australia, would declare them ’empty’ of natives.

Even when there are obviously natives (Welsh, Scots, Muslims, Slavs) the official colonial medieval literature disparages the aboriginal inhabitants’ lack of literacy, of iron tools or weapons, of orthodox Christianity, of organised towns with advanced codes of law and so on.

‘They’ are in every way uncivilised; ‘we’ in every way deserve to take their land because only ‘we’ know how to make it productive and fertile.

Many of the other histories I’ve read describe the numerous medieval conquests in terms of battles, alliances, troops and armour and so on; Bartlett’s is the only one I know which goes on to explain in great detail that, once you’ve conquered your new territory – you need people to come and live in it. You have to persuade people from the old lands to risk making a long journey, so you have to advertise and give would-be settlers tax breaks and even cash incentives. Settlers in Ireland, the south of Spain, the Holy Land or Livonia were all told how much empty land they could have, were offered tax breaks for the first few years and then reduced taxes for decades after, and the lords and conquerors fell over themselves to give the new towns attractive charters and independent powers to determine their own laws and taxes.

All of these techniques would be copied by the conquistadors in Central America or the merchant adventurers who launched the first settlements in North America, or the colonial authorities desperate to fill the wide ’empty’ spaces of Australia or New Zealand. It is a mind-opening revelation to learn how all these techniques were pioneered within Europe itself and against fellow ‘Europeans’, centuries before the New World was discovered.

Conclusion

This a very persuasive book which mounts an impressive armoury of evidence – archaeological and ecological, in place names, people’s names, saints names, in cultural traditions, church records and epic poems, in the spread of monasteries and universities and charters and coinage – to force home its eye-opening central argument: that the more advanced, centrally organised parts of Europe (north-west France, north-west Germany and south-east England) (all ultimately owing their authority, technology and ideology to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne) succeeded in conquering and settling the rest of less advanced, less developed and non-Christian Europe with the aid of a panoply of technologies and ideologies, legal and cultural and physical weapons – a panoply which Europeans would then use to sail out and conquer huge tracts of the rest of the world.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

Historia Anglorum by Henry of Huntingdon (1154)

It is my considered opinion that the sweetest relief from suffering and the best comfort in affliction that this world affords are to be found almost entirely in the study of literature. (Prologue to The History of The English People)

Henry was born around 1088 to a Saxon mother and a Norman father, who was archdeacon of Huntingdon. Aged 12 he was sent to the school at Lincoln Cathedral where he received a thorough grounding in the medieval subjects of grammar, rhetoric and logic, but most of all, the mother of all knowledge, Theology. He lived in the household of the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Bloet, who had been chancellor to King William II (William Rufus 1087-1100) and was one of Henry I’s closest advisers. So he was an eye-witness to the lifestyle and culture of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy and court of the time. When his father died he was awarded the archdeaconry of Huntingdon and canonry of Lincoln, posts he would hold until his death in 1156.

Nothing is more excellent in this life than to investigate and become familiar with the course of worldly events. Where does the grandeur of men shine more brightly, or the wisdom of the prudent, or the discretion of the righteous, or the moderation of the temperate, than in the context of history? (Prologue. 1)

The history

A new bishop of Lincoln was appointed in 1123 and soon discovered that his canon (Henry) was a diligent, intelligent and widely read man, who had already composed some letters on moral subjects and poetry. Around 1124 the bishop commissioned Henry to write a history of England and its people from the earliest times to the present day. This Henry promptly set about doing, producing after ten years a long detailed chronicle starting with the legendary – and widely believed – founding of Britain by a refugee from the Trojan War, the completely fictional Brutus, down to the reign of King Henry I (1100-1134). For the earlier parts he leaned heavily on the Venerable Bede’s magnificent Ecclesiastical History (732), and subsequently relied on versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which Henry knew and understood well enough to translate into Latin.

But Henry’s maturity happened to coincide with a vital period of medieval history, the Anarchy during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). Luckily for us Henry continued to update his History, adding new books filled with eye witness accounts or reliable information about all the key events of the period. New versions of the history were issued until just before Henry’s death in 1156: at that point the Anarchy had come to an end with the coronation of King Henry II and Henry’s History, in its final version, ends with a hymn of praise to the new ruler.

Latin

Henry’s History was written in Latin though, apparently, a Latin which was deliberately simple and easy to read yet also stylish and exciting. He wanted to write for the widest possible (educated) audience and there is evidence that many copies were made and his history widely read and praised.

Rhetoric not history

Henry’s concept of history was different from ours. Although it contains many facts and stories found nowhere else, that wasn’t his prime purpose in writing his History. These were threefold: first, to demonstrate his grasp of the classical arts of rhetoric. The most striking and enjoyable aspect of Henry’s history is the stirring speeches he gives leading nobles and kings on the eve of the various battles. These are completely invented and follow a set pattern laid down in manuals of rhetoric, but that doesn’t stop them being extremely powerful, especially if read out, no – declaimed – in a Laurence Olivier or even Winston Churchill voice.

History as God’s will

The recorded deeds of all peoples and nations… are the very judgements of God. (Prologue. 3)

The second and main aim of Henry’s History was to praise God and show His workings in the world. Throughout the book, on every page, he asserts that this or that incident was deliberately deigned by God to show that the wicked will be punished and the virtuous rewarded, that those who enjoy God’s grace will triumph and those who ignore God will fail. Henry’s God is the medieval God, not some remote Ultimate Being of later centuries and other traditions, but a strong-minded, earnest and often angry God who intervenes at all levels of society and the universe, making castle walls bleed, making comets in the sky go backwards as evil omens, intervening to help the righteous crusaders win against the infidel Muslims, or overthrowing proud kings like Henry I.

A number of kings or dukes or earls die suddenly at the height of their powers. Instead of attributing this to chance and the complete absence of medicine, as we do, Henry generally points out that the deceased had just committed some deed of wickedness exorbitant even by the standards of the time eg conquering a town and massacring all its inhabitants before burning it to the ground. His mind is always looking to the deeper meaning, the revelation of God’s plan, which he is convinced is implicit in all human history.

History as morally improving

Which brings us to the third of Henry’s purposes, to teach morality. God has arranged all human history so as to make it a series of lessons in good and wicked behaviour, and therefore it is the historian’s duty to bring this out, to point out the virtue of the virtuous and the wickedness of the evil, in order to raise and improve the reader.

In this work the attentive reader will find what to imitate and what to reject, and if, by God’s help, he becomes a better person for this emulation and avoidance, that will be for me the reward I most desire. (Prologue. 4)

Thus the central event of the history – the Norman Conquest – is not just a calamity but Henry sees it – arguably, given his profound Christian faith, can only see it – as part of God’s plan; and if the demonstrable sufferings imposed on the English are part of God’s plan, they must have the same meaning all suffering has in Christian theology namely, a punishment for the sufferer’s wickedness, a purging of sin, a cleansing of evil. For Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, for Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, for Henry in his History – when bad things happen to people it is because the people are bad and deserve it. God cannot be wrong. And all History is controlled by God. Therefore the wrong resides in the victims: the victims are themselves to blame.

Behold the glittering vengeance of God!

It is a theology drenched in the Old Testament and, like the ancient Israelite authors, it narrates the deeds of mighty men in order to show a fierce and vengeful God smiting his enemies and raising those who worship and fear him; while the godly scribe/prophet/archdeacon records it all for the edification of future generations.

Henry gives a particularly long account of the trials and tribulations of the First Crusade, every victory a proof of the godliness of their cause, every defeat caused by the lack of faith or wickedness of one or other leader. The remoteness of his attitude to our modern one is typified by the notorious capture and sack of Jerusalem, three days of murder and looting in which the Western soldiers decimated the population, killing Muslims, Jews and Christians, raping women, looting everything they could remove, until the streets were piled with corpses. To the modern reader this is a disgusting holocaust, a massacre, not only wicked in itself but having a disastrous affect on the reputation of the Franks, the Latins, the entire West for generations afterwards. For Henry it is a famous victory and ‘the sons of God cleansed the holy city from impure nations’.

Henry’s record of events is interesting. His set piece speeches are invigorating. His anecdotes are entertaining and colourful. And his untempered, unquestioningly Old Testment Christian moralising is bracing, terrifying and gruesomely fascinating.

This edition

This Oxford University Press edition is not the text of the entire history. It is a selection which mainly amounts to the final three books of the history, covering the period from 1000 to 1154 ie the build-up to the Conquest, the Conquest and its aftermath, the reign of brutal King William Rufus, wise King Henry I, and then the lamentable anarchy of King Stephen’s reign – 96 paperback pages, in all, fairly short. It also includes Henry’s short letter On Contempt For The World, Drawn From my Own Experience and a short essay on The Miracles of the English.

The edition was prepared by Diana Greenway, Professor of Medieval History and the Institute for Historical Research, University of London. She is the author of the Oxford Medieval Texts version of the full Latin text of the History, along with a complete English translation (1996) which I would dearly like to read but which, alas, currently retails for £225.

This paperback edition has an informative introduction, useful maps and family trees (vital for this period) as well as copious notes, especially good at pointing out where Henry was wrong and misleading in his account. Altogether this is a very attractive, useful and thought-provoking paperback edition of this riveting and enlightening work

Related links

Consequences of the Norman Conquest

In his marvellous book, The Norman Conquest, Marc Morris gives a very detailed account and explanation of the events leading up to the invasion of 1066, beginning over fifty years earlier with King Ethelred’s marriage to a wife from Normandy, following the complex story up to the bloody Battle of Hastings, and following through with a full description of the aftermath, the rebellions and reprisals, the cities and towns and countryside burned and devastated, the gruesome process of colonisation – and then a sketchier summary of the struggle for the succession after the Conqueror’s death in 1087.

In the final chapters, Morris weighs the achievements and the costs of the Conquest, some of which are obvious, some less so:

The English language can be regarded as a ‘creole’, that’s to say a language created by two or more distinct language groups as a mid-way between them. A ‘pidgen’ is a simplified form which two language users or groups create with each other on a temporary basis, but a creole is a full and stable entity in its own right.

Thus Anglo-Saxon ceased at a stroke to be the language of court or church, replaced by Norman French and Latin respectively. But the new landowning class had to communicate with its serfs somehow and, as the years passed, intermarriage took place between conquerors and conquered, and not just between their bodies and estates, but between their words.

After King John lost most of his French possessions in the 1210s, the Norman aristocracy had to face the fact that its future lay in this foggy island and reconcile itself to its history and culture. And so English went into hibernation, unrecorded in official documents for centuries, but undergoing profound changes of grammar and vocabulary. When it re-emerges into the written record three hundred years later, during the 14th century, it is an English substantially altered from its Anglo-Saxon predecessor and stuffed full of French vocabulary and phraseology.

The language had already absorbed a fair amount of Viking terminology during the Dark Ages. Now it emerged larded with French and Latin words and with a looseness of grammar which made it flexible and adaptable: in the coming centuries it would easily absorb terms and phrases from languages spoken all over its vast new Empire. By the late 20th century English had the largest vocabulary of any European language, while precious, purist French had the smallest.

Snobbery Latin was reinforced as the language of the church and of official documents; French as the language of court. Right up to the present day the study of Latin distinguishes state from private schools, is still associated with logic and reason, and is periodically defended by chaps who went to that sort of school, although their essays always struggle to express the real justification for its continued teaching: it is the language of power. Similarly, to this day the ability to speak French is taken as a particular mark of style and sophistication, of being chic, of having savoir faire, although plenty of other cultures and languages are ‘stylish’. Because that strand of ‘conqueror-worship’ is part of English culture’s DNA.

Cathedrals William supported religion – after all, the invasion was given full backing by Pope Alexander II (just as Pope Sixtus V gave his support to Philip of Spain’s attempt to invade England in 1588). Soon after his victory William commissioned a new abbey at Battle and set about comprehensively rebuilding England’s cathedrals. By 1097 nine of England’s ancient cathedrals had burnt down or been demolished in the various rebellions and reprisals which followed the conquest, and new Romanesque buildings were replacing them. Over the next generation the remaining six would be rebuilt in the new style along with every major abbey. Amounting to a revolution in English ecclesiastical architecture.

Religious revival Contemporary chroniclers lamented the irreligion of the Anglo-Saxons – William of Malmesbury gives a hilarious description of the English living in wattle huts, covered in tattoos and drinking till they spew – and unanimously praised William and the Normans for their religious zeal. The Conquest happened to coincide with the coming to power of a succession of reformist popes – notably Gregory VII (1073-85) – so it was a time when the Catholic Church reformed and renewed its laws and encouraged godly rulers to apply them to all aspects of society. Morris records another elementary aspect of the religious revival following the Conquest – the numbers:

  • in 1066 there were around 60 monasteries in England, by 1135 more than 250
  • in the Confessor’s day around 1,000 English monks and nuns, by the 1130s as many as 5,000

Castles Wherever they went the Normans introduced the military innovation of the castle. William built Windsor, Warwick, York, Norwich, Winchester, Colchester and the Tower of London, as well as scores of others, and his Norman followers did the same, so that within a generation there were some 500 castles scattered across the land, built to house the oppressor, impregnable bases from which to sally forth and defend their land.

Land and colonisation For the Normans had a different attitude to land-holding from previous invaders; they came not to pillage moveable goods but to seize and hold the land itself, to create the largest possible estates and then hand them down to their heirs through the new rules of primogeniture. Compare and contrast with the mercenaries who accompanied King Cnut’s invasion of 1016; after they’d helped Cnut to the throne they took their gold and left. The Normans stayed and implemented sweeping changes to land tenure, law and administration.

The end of political murder Cnut executed the small number of senior English aristocrats he thought were a threat and left the vast majority in place. Fifty years later William adopted a strikingly different policy, rarely executing the natives (possibly under the influence of his religious mentors) – he preferred to fight, capture, imprison or exile them. But this had an unexpected consequence: whereas Cnut beheaded all opposition and so ruled in peace and allowed most English aristocrats to stay in post, William’s relatively merciful attitude meant that he kept facing repeated rebellions and uprisings, as exiles returned or prisoners escaped to raise the patriotic flag. This led, in the end, to a far more sweeping replacement of English aristocrats and a far more thorough redistribution of their land than William might originally have been intended.

Eventually, as the Domesday Book demonstrates, by 1086 the Normans had almost completely replaced the English at every level. Thousands of the highest ranks in the land were filled with Normans and the formerly wealthy English had been forced into servitude. Hence the lamentations of the various chroniclers, Henry of Huntingdonshire or William of Malmesbury, who saw the conquest as a thorough-going social revolution, as a traumatic act of colonisation.

Slavery England had been famous for its slaves during Roman times: slaves were one of our most popular exports to the Roman Empire. Things probably didn’t improve when the Angles and Saxons and Jutes began invading in the 450s, and the Vikings in their raids from 800 onwards routinely took captives who they sold on as slaves. Although some Saxons kings tried to ban it, slavery was still a thriving business when the Normans invaded, so that around 10% of the entire country were slaves in 1086, the year of the Domesday Survey.

William’s archbishop, Lanfranc, prompted him to ban slavery. The Normans as a caste and culture seem to have genuinely abhorred the practice. As late as 1102 an ecclesiastical council criticised the trade which treated humans like ‘animals’ to be be bought and sold but, as Morris points out, there were no further written bans after that date, which is evidence they weren’t needed. He estimates that by the 1130s slavery in England had ended. Of course there is a cynical interpretation to all this: The Normans brought a more ruthless attitude to seizing and exploiting land and might well have found it more profitable to have free tenants who they could milk for rents and other costs, rather than slaves which the owners have to rather expensively house and feed. But the profit motive and the Norman religious revival, taken together, ended slavery in England.

Towards France and away from Scandianavia William conquered England while retaining his Duchy of Normandy (in the next 20 years he was to spend as much time defending his Norman realm and fighting various threats to it as in putting down English rebellions). Morris points out that the French connection changed the entire focus of English culture and politics.

a) The Norman court (and all those aristocrats who copied and aspired to join it) was noticeably more interested in fine food, fine clothes and the fine arts than the Anglo-Saxon one had been.

b) More importantly, it now meant that successive rulers of England were drawn into French and continental power politics and wars, and away from the Scandinavian-Viking-North Sea zone which had been so powerful a cultural, linguistic and political influence over the previous 300 years. Successive rulers of England would now find themselves embroiled in wars against France, in France, making preposterous claims to the French throne or tracts of land, climaxing in the immense Hundred Years War which actually lasted from 1337 to 1453.

c) This shift maybe explains the sense of loss and nostalgia about our often-neglected Nordic heritage, which many English feel. The north and east of England, the Viking zone for so many centuries, were treated particularly harshly by William during the ‘Harrying of the North’ and continue to this day to have a harsher, colder, more stone feel, a rugged ‘authentic’ feel, to the names and accents and landscape. William and his successors’ courts in London had more in common, culturally, with the courts of Europe, with the poets of Provence or even Italy, than with their own compatriots north of the Humber. A sentiment echoed in a comment in today’s Guardian, lamenting that David Cameron’s government is focused on the wealthy south-east and doesn’t give a damn about the towns and villages affected by the recent flooding in Cumbria: ie that north-south divide still persists.

Anglo-Norman superiority complex Morris makes one last, powerful point. The Normans, despite 20 years of destroying resisting towns and cities, despite completely replacing the ruling class and reducing the natives to serfdom – nonetheless introduced a genuine religious revival, a boom in magnificent new stone cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries, abolished slavery and political murder, and introduced new continental ideas of courtliness and chivalry.

But when they looked at their still-independent neighbours in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, they saw brutal savages, still indulging in endless internecine warfare, political assassinations, raiding for slaves, living in wattle and daub shanties. Within a generation the chroniclers are dropping remarks about their superiority to the savages on their border.

Arguably, the most profound consequence of the conquest was to give the English an enduring superiority complex over the other inhabitants of the British Isles, who we went on to conquer in succeeding centuries, before going on to apply the same sense of invincible superiority to half the rest of the world, as we carved out a global empire.

Related links

The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris (2012)

Young historian and TV presenter Marc Morris has written a racy pacy account of the ‘most important event in English history’, a  350-page overview which starts 50 years before the big event, continues for a generation afterwards, and effortlessly integrates scholarly weighing of the various sources and their reliability with common-sense interpretation and stylish factual asides.

For example, the population of 11th century England was some 1.5 million of whom over 10% were slaves. Most of the population above them were smallholding churls, with around 5,000 significant landowners in the whole country, of whom only an estimated 90 held enough land to be rich enough to attend the king, and only 4 earls at a time ruled the four main regions of Wessex, Mercia, Northumberland and East Anglia.

There are some fascinating sections on the rise of Norman church architecture, later named the ‘Romanesque’, whose soaring new designs eclipsed the clunky windowless churches of the Saxons.  And a chapter dedicated to the origin and implementation of the amazing Domesday Book.

However, no matter how brightly and enthusiastically it starts, like every account of this era, Morris’s book soon bogs down in the tangled web of family trees and promises – ie who promised who the throne of which country when, who invaded who, who made solemn oaths of friendship and then declared war etc – webs which ensnare not just the throne of England but those of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Wales and France as well as the dukedoms and earldoms of Anjou and Flanders and Normandy, to name just the main ones.

As one way through this complex web I set out to record simply why each king of England – from Æthelred the Unready onwards – actually became king. Not their acts and achievements. Just why they became king.

***

Æthelred the Unready (978–1013 and 1014–1016) son of King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth, Æthelred was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. King Edgar had an older son by another wife, Edward, who duly became king in 975 but was not the choice of many powerful nobles and was murdered just three years later in 978. It’s at this point that the Witan or council of powerful landowners elected the ten-year-old Æthelred king. Over the following 40 years Æthelred failed to bind together the factions which had made his election so bloody, and his long reign was characterised by backstabbing weakness at the centre and betrayal at the periphery. All made worse for coinciding with a resumption of the Danish/Viking raiding which everyone thought had been staunched in the mid-900s. Thus in 1002 Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, landed and began harrying whole swathes of England in sustained campaigns until, in 1013, Æthelred was forced to flee abroad (to the court of Normandy, home of his wife Emma) whereupon Sweyn declared himself king.

Sweyn Forkbeard (1013-14) Sweyn had himself crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1013. He reigned for 5 weeks, dying on 3 February 1014. He had one son, Cnut, aged about 20, who had been an active helper in his wars. But the English ealdormen rejected Cnut and invited Æthelred back to be their king. Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England was elective.

Æthelred the Unready part 2 (1014–1016) Æthelred accepted the invitation, returned from Normandy and organised an army which defeated the Danes in Lincolnshire, the one and only military victory of his reign. However, old divisions among his senior advisers once again opened up and soon his eldest son, Edmund, was in open opposition to him. In September 1015 the Danes led by Cnut re-invaded and Edmund led the armies against them while Æthelred fell into his final illness and his court squabbled as usual. In April 1016 Æthelred died.

Edmund Ironside (April – November 1016) third of the six sons of Æthelred by his first marriage to Ælfgifu, Edmund gathered loyalist forces around him to fight the Danes, first Sweyn and then his son Cnut. Edmund was king of England from April 1016, when his father died. He led fierce resistance to the invading Danes, fighting five major battles against them before defeat at the battle of Battle of Assandun led him to agree to a division of the country, Edmund keeping Wessex, the old English heartland of Alfred the Great, and Cnut taking the rest. These arrangements were rendered moot when Edmund himself died 0n 30 November, probably from wounds sustained in the battle.

—At  this point Æthelred’s children by his second wife, Emma of Normandy – Alfred, the future Edward the Confessor and their sister, Godgifu – fled abroad to Normandy.—

Cnut the Great (1016-1035) Cnut and his Danish army successfully regained the throne claimed by his father Sweyn. He was to rule as king of England for nearly 20 years, at the same time being king of Denmark and of as much of Norway as he could conquer.

[Edmund’s heirs – Edmund had two children by Ealdgyth – Edward and Edmund. Cnut sent them to the king of Sweden to be murdered, but the Swedish king forwarded them to Hungary where Edmund died but Edward prospered. Edward ‘the Exile’, as he became known, returned to England in 1057 only to die within a few days of his arrival...]

Cnut had sons by two wives:

  • Ælfgifu of Northampton, who he was betrothed to by his father Sweyn upon the conquest in 1013, gave him Svein and Harold, called ‘Harefoot’. Svein was to die on campaign in Norway in 1035.
  • Upon taking the throne Cnut invited Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, to marry him; she did and bore him Harthacnut.

Hiatus (1035-37) When Cnut died after nearly 20 years on the English throne he left the conditions for a bloody struggle between the two sets of sons. The great men of the kingdom held a meeting at Oxford on the river Thames, the border between Wessex and the south where Emma based herself and which supported Harthacnut, and the more Scandinavian north which supported Harold. They agreed to partition the country (once again) but in fact Harthacnut found it impossible to leave Denmark where he was threatened by invasion by the kings of both Norway and Sweden, for some years. And so, the record suggests, Harold little by little made himself actual ruler of the whole country.

Harold I ‘Harefoot’ (1035-40) son of Cnut by his second wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, some historians speculate that his mother was the real power behind the throne. After the conflicts surrounding his election not much is recorded of his reign. He died in on 7 March 1040 at the relatively young age of 24, just as his half-brother Harthacnut had finally got round to organising a fleet to invade England.

Harthacnut (1040-42) son of Cnut and his second wife, Emma the widow of Æthelred. He arrived with a fleet of 62 ships at Sandwich on 17 June 1040.  Most of the army were mercenaries and one of Harthacnut’s first acts was to levy an enormous tax to pay for them. Unpopular across the country, two tax collectors in Worcester were killed by the mob which led Harthacnut to send forces to kill everyone in the city and raze it to the ground. His popularity never recovered and he levied the same punitive tax the next year. After two brief years, on 8 June 1042 Harthacnut dropped dead at a wedding feast in Lambeth.

But, according to Morris, one of the few good things Harthacnut did in his reign was, in the second year, unexpectedly, to invite Edward, son of Æthelred and Emma, to come and join him in a joint rule (p.42). Maybe he realised how unpopular he was and needed an English intermediary. Whatever the motivation it paved the way for Edward’s swift acclamation.

Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) was a son of Æthelred by his second marriage to Emma of Normandy. Æthelred already had no fewer than six sons by his first marriage to Ælfgifu and so it must have seemed unlikely that Edward would ever inherit the crown. However, the most powerful son, Edmund Ironside, was killed resisting Cnut as, it seems, were four of the others, and the survivor, Eawdwig, was executed by Cnut along with any other members of the English nobility who seemed a threat soon after his victory in 1016. So now, in 1042, the son of Emma and Cnut – Harthacnut – was dead – and so were the sons of Cnut and Ælfgifu – Svein and Harold – and so were all the sons of Æthelred and Ælfgifu – leaving Edward on the spot and eligible. He was elected king by the Witan and crowned on Easter Day 1043.

Harold II Godwinson (1066) Edward reigned for a long time and a lot happened. A central thread is the presence of the great earl Godwine, who had risen under Cnut from relative obscurity to become, through his fighting prowess, earl of Wessex and one of the most powerful earls in the country by about 1020. A theme of Edward’s reign was the difficulty he had managing Godwine, problems which reached a climax in 1051 when Edward ordered Godwin to punish the population of Dover for a drunken brawl with visiting Frenchmen. Godwin refused, it became a battle of wills and Edward rallied the other earls and leaders and managed to get Godwin and his sons exiled and seized all his land. However, in 1052, the Godwins returned with a large armed force and won enough support to compel Edward to restore him. In 1053 he died and his son Harold inherited the earldom of Wessex, every bit as strong and imperious as his father.

The fatal promise

The crux of the Norman Conquest is whether Edward the Confessor promised the English throne to Duke William of Normandy, as is depicted in the Bayeaux tapestry and in all Norman accounts. When Cnut ruled England the entire Saxon royal family sought refuse in Normandy, where Edward was raised. As it became clear he was going to have no male issue, he allegedly, in 1051, sent a promise to Duke William that he would inherit the English throne. Over the years he infiltrated various Normans into high positions, including Archbishop of Canterbury.

Edward was well aware that earl Godwin’s headstrong son, Harold, considered himself a legitimate heir and so in 1064 Edward ordered him to go to Normandy to confirm Edward’s election of Duke William as his successor. This Harold did with very bad grace and William forced him to make the oath of allegiance over holy relics, effectively making Harold William’s vassal. But in his heart Harold didn’t accept it.

For Harold and the Saxons the crown was passed on by the decision of the Witan or council or by brute force; one king couldn’t choose to pass it to another. For William, Edward’s promise and Harold’s confirmation of it on holy relics, was a solemn and binding legal agreement.

And so when Edward died and Harold, ignoring his forced promise, and acclaimed by the other nobles of the country, took the throne, Duke William felt cheated and was able to persuade not only his own people but even Pope Alexander II that his cause was Just, to raise a massive armada, and to get the Pope’s blessing for his invasion. Harold counter-claimed that Edward gifted him the throne on his deathbed.

Who was telling the truth? Did such a gift supersede – if it was made – the solemn promises Edward had made earlier to William? Did those solemn promises have meaning in English custom and law?

Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey on January 6 1066. In September he had to march north to deal with the invasion of the Norwegian warrior, Harold Hardrada.

Harald Sigurdsson (called ‘Hardrada’) Half-brother to King Olaf the Saint of Norway. Following Olaf’s defeat and death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Harald saw action in Russia and then as a member of the Byzantine emperor’s famous Varangian Guard in warfare around the Mediterranean. In 1046 he returned to Scandinavia and to conflict with his nephew Magnus I who had become king of Denmark and Norway. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald became king of Norway but hankered after Denmark as well and raided the country every year for nearly 20 years. Moreover, he contemplated invading England more than once, to restore the Empire of Cnut the Great. The Confessor was well aware of this and sent numerous emissaries to pacify Harald, but who also gave him the impression he would get the throne of England when Edward died.

In 1066 Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig, former earl of Northumbria, was driven out of England and into exile. He came to Norway and persuaded Harald to try and invade the north of England, the part of the country with strong Scandinavian ties due to the prolonged settlement there of Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. The landings were initially successful and Harald and his forces won the battle of Fulford outside York. However, King Harold II Godwinson arrived with a large force and, catching the Norwegians by surprise, massacred them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066.

William the Bastard (1066-87) In 1036 Duke Robert of Normandy died on pilgrimage to the Holy Land leaving a 7-year-old son by a working woman to whom he was not married and who he named William. William’s childhood and teens were spent in a court in crisis and beset by war, an environment he mastered, making himself the most successful military leader in northern Europe. He was convinced Edward the Confessor had promised him the crown of England and was outraged when Harold ‘usurped’ it. He assembled a huge invasion fleet and an army well-stocked with mercenary fighters, before waiting impatiently for the weather in the English Channel to become favourable. Landing in Pevensey Bay on 28 September 1066, he marched his army to Hastings and then inland to the ridge at Senlac where, on 14 October, the Battle of Hastings was fought, King Harold Godwinson killed, and the Saxon forces decimated.

William then marched his men from the coast through Sussex and Surrey, across the Thames and then north-east along the Chilterns to Berkhamsted, ravaging and burning as he went. All resistance was crushed and eventually the English nobles in London realised they had to capitulate. William had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. For the Normans coronation put God’s seal on power. He also had the Pope’s imprimatur. William claimed the throne:

  • by right of the Confessor’s solemn promises
  • by right of conquest
  • by right of the Pope and Mother Church
  • by the (eventual) acclamation of the leading English nobles

Edward the Aetheling Remember Edward the Exile, the son of Edmund Ironside? Who came back to England in 1057 only to drop dead? Well, he had a son known to history as Edgar the Ætheling (b.1051?). After Harold II was killed at Battle, Edward was briefly proclaimed king of England and based himself in anti-Norman London, at least for the few months that William ravaged his way through the Home Counties. It was Edward who led the deputation from London which went to submit to the Conqueror at Berkhamsted. He was allowed to live but plagued William by putting himself at the head of a number of rebellions against William’s rule between 1067 and 1075. With the end of English opposition in that year he went and fought alongside the Conqueror’s son Robert of Normandy in campaigns in Sicily (1085-1087) and accompanied Robert on the First Crusade (1099-1103) before dying of old age in England in 1126.

The failure of monarchy

The fundamental reason there was a Norman Conquest is because Edward the Confessor failed to have a son, indeed any children. His widow, Edith, later commissioned a Life of Edward which claimed he was so devout and holy the couple never had sex. More likely it was just a common-or-garden case of infertility, in which case two of the most seismic events in English history – the Norman Conquest and the Reformation – can be attributed to malfunctioning sex organs.

Related links

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

The Saga of the Jomsvikings

Classifying sagas

Hundreds of long prose texts were composed in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries, the texts we call sagas. Modern scholars bring some order to this profusion by classifying them as:

  • sagas of Icelanders (Íslendinga sögur) – just over 40 texts describing what purport to be the true exploits of ordinary figures from the early settlement of Iceland, the so-called Saga Period, from 870 to just after the Christianisation in 1000 – this is the category which includes all the famous sagas ie Njal, Grettir, Laxdaela and so on
  • short tales of Icelanders (Íslendingaþættir) – around 66 items, often very short, often abstracted from the longer kings’ sagas
  • kings’ sagas (Konungasögur) – lives of Scandinavian kings, most notably the famous Heimskringla
  • contemporary sagas (Samtíðarsögur) – contemporary to their 13th century time of composition, written soon after the events they describe, most preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga
  • legendary sagas (Fornaldarsögur) – dealing with deep myths and legends of the Northern peoples, most notably the Völsunga saga
  • chivalric sagas (Riddarasögur) – frequently copied from southern, mostly French chansons de geste
  • saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendingasögur)
  • saints’ sagas (Heilagra manna sögur)
  • bishops’ sagas (Biskupa sögur)

Jómsvíkinga saga is told in the flat, objective style of the sagas of Icelanders but deals with chieftains and kings and high politics, so is more of a king’s saga.

Summary

Jomsborg is founded on the north German coast by the legendary Danish hero, Pálni-Tóki. It is a fraternity of vikings who raid around the Baltic. After Pálni-Tóki’s death the new leader, Sigvaldi, kidnaps King Svein of Denmark and tricks him into marrying Gunnhild, daughter of the Wendish king Búrisleif. Svein’s revenge is to invite the vikings to a feast at which he gets them drunk and encourages them to vow to conquer Norway and its ruler Earl Hákon Sigfurdsson. At the resulting Battle of Hjörungavágr the Jomsvikings are soundly beaten and, in a famous scene, 70 of them are lined up and executed until Eirik, Hákon’s son, is moved by their bravery to spare them.

Accretions

The Battle of Hjörungavágr is the core of the story and yet it only occurs in the last ten or so chapters of the 38-chapter long text. Over the centuries the oral tradition and the scribes (endless controversy about how much of each) have added on 20 or more chapters of build-up stretching back some 150 years before the main event, introducing, for example, the series of prophetic dreams (rather garbled and ineffective in the event, as they don’t actually foretell many key events). As with all the sagas events are told in the same flat style with little or no explanation which means you have to reread the text since, only when you’ve got to the end, do you find out what it’s about, which bits are important and which bits are fun and fanciful but unnecessary to the ‘plot’.

History and non-history

As the scholar N.F. Blake writes in his thorough and academic introduction to this 1962 edition, despite the highly detailed nature of the text which appears to be all about kings and battles, ‘The Jómsvíkinga Saga is not a historical text and has no value as a historical document. The main claim that the saga has to our attention is its literary excellence.’

Maybe so, but the saga is densely packed thoughout with real historical personages and, although their relations may be cast in fairy tale terms of three dreams and three visits and trick oaths and miraculous storms, nonetheless a lot of it is meaningless unless you have a good grasp of the power relations between the various kings and earls of Norway and Denmark – a challenging feat since the sources are meagre and even the best modern scholarship is dismayingly speculative about much of this period.

However, the overall affect is similar to other substantial sagas in that the mere effort involved in trying to follow the story leads you to become emotionally attached to some of the protagonists (for example, the venerable Bjorn the Welshman who is quietly effective throughout), even when their actions are repellent, even when their characters are almost non-existent – so that by the time the tragic end arrives the reader is moved partly out of sheer exhaustion at having stuck with the text till the bitter end.

Versions

Apparently the saga exists in five versions which are quite different in detail. This translation is from version H. There are also a number of other texts retailing the adventures of the Jomsvikings, which give completely different versions of key facts, for example about who founded them and where Jomsborg even was. This saga doesn’t give the definitive account, the reverse: reading this saga would be only the beginning of a journey towards a full understanding of the subject…

Detailed synposis

1 – In Denmark ruled King Gorm the Childless. His friend Earl Arnfinn holds a fiefdom in north Germany from Charlemagne (d.814). The earl has an incestuous relationship with his sister who bears a son. Slaves are told to expose it but, as always in this fable, leave it where it will be found by King Gorm and his hirdmen hunting. The babe is found in rich fabric knotted into a tree, so Gorm calls him Knut (knot) and adopts him and leaves him his kingdom. Knut himself has a son he names Gorm who will later be known as Gorm the Mighty.
2 – In Holstein rules Earl Klakk-Harald. His daughter Þyri has no equal in beauty. King Gorm comes with his army seeking her hand, but Harald wisely invites him to a feast at which Þyri herself says he must come again with gifts, build a house where none has stood, and sleep three nights in winter, having three dreams. Gorm goes away, builds the house, sleeps there on three consecutive nights and has dreams and tells Þyri who says she can marry him. Big wedding feast.
3 – Gorm tells his dreams: 1. He is looking out over his kingdom, the sea has receded to dry up. He sees three white oxen come out of the sea, eat all the grass, and return to the sea. 2. Three red oxen with large horns come up from the sea, strip all the grass, and return to the sea. 3. Three enormous black oxen come from the sea, eat all the grass, and return. Then a loud crash as the sea rushes back to where it had been. Þyri interprets: three white oxen are three heavy winters covering the land with snow. Three red oxen mean three winters with little snow but not good. The three black oxen mean a dire famine. The crash of the sea means civil war between great men close to Gorm. The queen pledges to prepare for the famine and when it comes there is enough food to feed all, whence she becomes known as the wisest woman alive and the Glory of Denmark.
4 – King Gorm invites Earl Harald to visit him at Christmas but the earl and men see a tree covered with blossom and decide it is a bad omen and turn back (symbolising the change from heathenism to Christianity in Denmark). Next year another Christmas invite but when they board a ship the earl and his men hear whelps barking in their mothers’ wombs (the rebellion of Svein against his father). Next year another invitation but this time the earl and his men see waves crashing and the sea turning red (the conflict between Knut and Harald – this never happens as Knut is killed by a Saxon arrow – see below). The king is all for attacking and ravaging Holstein but his wife calms him and invites her father who explains what kept him home three times and interprets the events as warning that boys yet unborn will cause great strife.
5 – Earl Harald bestows his land on  his foster-son Knut and goes on pilgrimage never to return. Aethelstan is king in England (925-39). The Danish army led by Gorm’s sons Knut and Harald invades and ravages Northumberland. Aethelstan gathers an army and defeats the Danes near Scarborough. One day the men were swimming by their ships when English men attack with bows, mortally wounding Knut. The English rally and the Danes are decisively expelled. They return to tell King Gorm who dies of heartbreak and is buried at Jelling (930? 940?). Harald Gormsson is elected king who will become known as King Harald Bluetooth (958-986).
6 – At this time Norway is ruled by Harald Greycloak (960-970?), the son of Eirik Bloodaxe, and his mother, Eirik’s wife Gunnhild, who had expelled Earl Hakon Sigurdarson, who takes 10 ships and to a Viking life. During winter King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth and Earl Hákon plot treachery against King Harald Greycloak of Norway and in the spring he is killed (970) by dead Knut’s son Gull-Harald (who Hákon then string up on a gallows for his trouble). Then the Holy Roman Emperor Otto comes on an expedition (974), gets Olaf Tryggvasson to help him and they force King Harald Bluetooth and Earl Hákon to become Christians.
7 – There was a man named Tóki who lived in Fyn in Denmark. He has three sons, the illegitimate Fjolnir (sneak), legitimate Áki (hero) and Pálnir (father of the legendary Pálni-Tóki). When Tóki  dies the two legitimate sons divide his property, offering Fjolnir a third of the chattels but not property. Angered he goes off to serve King Harald, rising to become his counsellor. Áki Tókason becomes the most successful viking raider in the land but Fjolnir feeds King Harald a steady diet and criticism and paranoia. When they learn Áki is at a feast in Gotland the king sends 10 ships and 600 men who successfully kill all Áki’s 120 men. Fjolnir has had his revenge.
8 – When Áki’s brother learns this he takes to his bed in despair since he cannot carry out the required revenge against so powerful a man as the king. His foster-brother Sigurdr advises asking the hand in marriage of Ingibjorg, daughter of Earl Ottar of Götland. He says yes and travels to Fyn for the grand wedding feast. That night in their wedding chamber Ingibjorg has a dream she is weaving on a loom the threads of which are weighted with human heads. One falls down and it is the head of King Harald Gormsson/Bluetooth. Good sign.
9 – Pálnir and Ingibjorg have a son Pálni-Tóki who grows up big and strong. (Apparently Pálni-Tóki is a legendary figure, comparable to William Tell and other heroes.) When his father dies he goes a-viking every summer. Wales is ruled by Stefnir who has a daughter Álof. Pálni-Tóki plans to raid there but Stefnir and his adviser Bjorn the Welshman quickly send emissaries inviting him to a feast and to be friends. Not only does Pálni-Tóki attend but he proposes to Stefnir’s daughter, Álof. Stefnir makes Pálni-Tóki an earl and gives him half of Wales. After a year Pálni-Tóki says he wants to return to Denmark, so leaves his half the kingdom in control of Bjorn the Welshman.
10 – King Harald Bluetooth progresses round his land. He stays with Pálni-Tóki. As a result of his carousing a servant woman, Saum-Aesa, falls pregnant and bears a son (960). When Pálni-Tóki learns it is by the king he adopts the child and calls it Sveinn. (He will grow up to be the Sven Forkbeard who rebels against his father and conquers England in 1013.)  Next time the king is visiting they present him the three year-old boy but the king is angry and doesn’t want to know. Pálni-Tóki vows to bring him up royally.
11 – When he is 15 Pálni-Tóki advises him to go ask for ships from his father so he can go raiding. He harries Denmark and the farmers complain. Next spring he asks for more ships and harries fiercely all summer. When he meets his father he threatens him and Harald buys him off with more ships. Pálni-Tóki congratulates him: he is becoming strong and threatening. Pálni-Tóki goes to check his lands in Wales.
12 – Svein harries, burning and looting. Finally King Harald sets off with 50 ships to confront him.  The fleets meet off Bornholm. Day-long battle is inconclusive and the ships anchor. Harald goes ashore. Pálni-Tóki arrives back from Wales with 24 ships. Harald goes ashore with a handful of men and makes a fire. Pálni-Tóki shoots him dead with a golden arrow and sneaks away. Fjolnir keeps the arrow and Harald’s retainers agree to lie that the king fell in battle. Next day the naval fight resumes; Svein and Pálni-Tóki’s forces break through Harald’s blockade and sink more ships at which point everyone learns that Harald is dead. Svein and Pálni-Tóki give his followers the choice between fighting on or pledging their allegiance to Sveinn. They choose the latter and Sveinn progresses to an Assembly at which he is voted new king of Denmark.
13 – Svein is now king (986-1014). He invites Pálni-Tóki to a feast but three times (as in all good folk tales) he refuses, claiming he has to manage his affairs in Wales. Finally, under threats from Svein, Pálni-Tóki arrives with three ships and 120 men. Big feast. Fjolnir (the same sneak who persuaded King Harald to kill his uncle Aki) whispers to the king the story of Pálni-Tóki killing his father.
14 – Fjolnir gives a page the golden arrow and tells him to pass it round the room till someone claims it. Pálni-Tóki claims it and openly declares he shot and killed Svein’s father. Svein (Pálni-Tóki’s foster-son, after all) tells everyone to seize and kill Pálni-Tóki. Everyone leaps to their feet. Pálni-Tóki chops his bad uncle Fjolnir in two (cheers). But Pálni-Tóki and Bjorn the Welshman escape, though Bjorn goes back to rescue a man they’d left behind.
15 – The next summer Pálni-Tóki’s wife dies. He is restless in Wales, so leaves it to Bjorn the Welshman to manage and goes a-viking the coasts of Scotland and Ireland for three years, gaining great loot and then sets sail east to Wendland. The king of the Wends, Búrisleif, is understandably worried and offers Pálni-Tóki a base at a place named Jóm. Pálni-Tóki builds a castle there with a harbour that can hold 360 longships and has iron doors and catapults. (This all sounds fantasy from a long time later.) He calls it Jómsborg.
16 – Laws of the Jomsvikings: age 18-50; no refusing to fight; avenge each as a brother; never speak a word of fear; all valuable goods seized to be taken to the banner(?); no starting fights; news to be mentioned only to Pálni-Tóki; no women in the city; no-one absent for more than three days; if blood feuds exist between brothers Pálni-Tóki makes final agreement. They went harrying every summer. They were known as the Jomsvikings.
17 – A number of new families are introduced. Pálni-Tóki’s son is Áki, living back on Fyn in Denmark. Áki marries Thorgunn, daughter of Véseti, they have a son named Vagn who is tough and hard to handle.
18 – Sigvaldi and Thorkell, sons of Strut-Harald, ask his permission to go join the Jomsvikings and sail with 120 men via Bornholm where they land and raid farms owned by Véseti, then sail on to Joms. Pálni-Tóki stands on the battlements over the harbour and asks them their provenance. He knows their kin and half the men are accepted, half rejected.
19 – Meanwhile Véseti complains to King Svein about his farms being raided. Sveinn summons Earl Strutt-Harald who says his son’s actions are no responsibility of his. Véseti with 240 men plunders Harald’s farms, who complains to Sveinn but Sveinn says Harald wanted to act alone: so Harald goes raids three of Véseti’s farms.
20 – Sveinn calls a great assembly at which all parties arrive with ships and short-tempered men and it looks like a full-scale civil war might erupt, except Svein  declares a just settlement, Búi will return Harald’s cloak and riches (though not the chests of gold he insists on keeping) and awards Strut-Harald’s daughter to Véseti’s son Sigurd-kapa. All sides as reconciled.
21 – Then Búi and his brother Sigurd-kapa decide they want to go join the Jomsvikings. They sail there and are also asked questions by Pálni-Tóki on the tower. Sigvaldi and Thorkell want to be assured the feud between the families is settled.
22 – Vagn is such an unruly child that by the age of nine he has killed three men. Age 12 he asks Aki for a ship and sails to Jom. Long dialogue with Pálni-Tóki on the tower, involving Búi and Sigvaldi. Nobody wants to admit Vagn. Pálni-Tóki offers him rule in Wales, he says no. Then he challenges Sigvaldi to come out with two ships and fight it out.
23 – Sigvaldi and Vagn’s ships fight, first with hails of stones, then with swords. Sigvaldi is forced to retreat and loses thirty men. Pálni-Tóki is watching, stops the fighting and admits Vagn to the crew, even though he is only 12. He turns out a mighty warrior.
24 – Pálni-Tóki dies. Before passing he consults with King Búrisleif who gave them Jom about who should replace him. They agree Sigvaldi who is delighted. Vagn is given half of Wales to rule and goes there. But under Sigvaldi the Jomsvikings’ discipline deteriorates.
25 – King Búrisleif has three daughters. Sigvaldi asks for the hand of the Astrid. The King agrees but Astrid is not keen and says she’ll only do it on condition that Sigvald manages to liberate their country from the tribute they have to pay Denmark or, alternatively, brings King Svein there himself. They confirm the arrangement with oaths. Sigvald sails with three ships and 360 men to Sjaellund ie his home territory, learning that King Svein is holding a big feast nearby. Sigvald tells Sveinn he is dying and needs to tell him something important. King Svein comes onboard Sigvald’s ship at which Sigvald grips him and orders his men to raise anchor and row off hurriedly. He takes the king to Jomsborg where the vikings swear loyalty to him. Then Sigvald says he has pledged him (Svein) to King Búrisleif’s other daughter Gunnhild who will only accept him if he cancels the tribute which King Búrisleif has to pay him. Svein agrees and there is a mighty wedding feast. The wives wear veils until the next day when the king can see their faces and realises Sigvald was lying when he said Gunnhild was the most beautiful. Still, he sails back to Denmark with his new bride, thirty ships and fine gifts and Sigvald sails to Jom with his new wife.
26 – Earl Strut-Harald, father of Sigvald and Thorkell, dies. King Svein says the brothers should return for the funeral feast. People warn him against it but the brothers return to Sjaelland with 180 ships. Big feast, lots of drinking: Svein gets the vikings drunk then suggests they make oaths. He swears to defeat Aethelred and take England within three years (he does so in 1014). Sigvald swears that he will drive Earl Hákon out of Norway or die in the attempt. Thorkell the Tall vows to follow his brother. Búi vows to follow Sigvald. Sigurd-kapa vows to follow his brother. Vagn vows to follow his kinsmen, and then to go to bed with Ingibjorg, daughter of Thorkell leira. Bjorn the Welshman (surely getting on a bit by now) vows to follow Vagn. In the morning the sober vikings can’t remember their vows but his wife, Astrid, reminds Sigvald, and promises to help him make plans.

[In a footnote, N.F. Blake says that a man making an oath at a feast gets up from his seat and goes and puts one foot on a stone in the feast hall.]

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

Sweyn and the Jomsvikings at the funeral ale of his father Harald Bluetooth by Lorenz Frølich, 1886 (Wikimedia Commons)

27 – Next day King Svein reminds the now-sober Sigvald of his vow. They squabble about how many ships the king will give him, and agree to set off soon. Astrid promises help to her husband, and Tóva gives her husband Sigurd some fighting men. The Jomsvikings depart.
28 – The Jomsvikings sail to the Vik and attack Tønsborg in Norway, murdering and burning. It is managed by Geirmund the White who flees to an outhouse with retainers then, when attacked, leaps out a window and has his arm chopped off by Vagn Akisson, but nonetheless flees to the woods and makes his way north to Earl Hakon who he tells of the attack. When the earl doesn’t believe him, he shows his stump.
29 – Hákon sends round the war arrow and musters troops. He raises his sons Svein and Eirik. The fleet of 360 ships assembles at a creek called Hjörungavágr. The Jomsvikins sail north plundering. The incident of Vagn and Ulf ie Vagn goes ashore on an island and finds a farmer tending three cows and 12 goats and asks him if he’s seen the Norwegian forces and he says he’s seen the king in one boat and the Joms force him to direct them and when he thinks they’re going t orealise he was lying he dives overboard but Vagn kills him with one spear throw.
30 – Detailed list of the men lined up on either side. For some reason space is devoted to one of Hákon’s skalds, Skjald-meyjar-Einarr, who recites a poem saying he’s going to leave. The earl gives him an elaborate set of magic scales and he stays. (This poet is mentioned in Egils saga as one of Hakon’s court poets and is also unhappy with his boss in that account.) And two verses from another Icelander named Vígfúss.
31 – The Battle of Hjörungavágr – detailed description of the battle lineup.
32 – Earl Hakon convenes with his sons and agree it looks like they’re losing. He goes ashore at Prímsign and prays to the heathen godesses, Thorgerd Holgabrudr and Irpa. He offers sacrifices which are rejected until he offers his seven-year-old son Erling who is then killed.
33 – He rallies his troops to rejoin the fray. As the day proceeds it clouds over until completely dark when lightning, thunder and hailstones break out. Many had taken off their clothes earlier in the day because of the heat and now begin to freeze. Whatever the Jomsvikings threw rebounded back on them plus the hail. The vikings with second sight see that a witch is throwing arrows at them. Hákon calls on his pagan goddess Thorgerd once again and the hailstorm is renewed, and those with second sight now see two witches fighting agains them. Sigvaldi concedes defeat. They didn’t vow to fight witches. Thorkell midlang leaps aboard Búi’s ship and hits him in the face with an axe, slips and Búi chops him in two; then Búi seizes his famous chests of gold (see chapter 20) and commands his men to abandon ship. Vagn, disgusted with Sigvald for abandoning his oath, makes an insulting poem about it then flings a spear at him which pins his steersman to the gunwale. Once Sigvald is gone, Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa and the rest all flee.
34 – Only Vagn fights on though many of his men are killed. When night falls the Norwegian earls take the oars from Vagn’s ship, anchor and weigh the hailstones sent by the pagan godesses Thorgerd and Irpa. Vagn’s men manage to float on the mast & sail to nearby skerries but many are wounded, it is bitter cold, and ten men die.
35 – At first light a viking arrow kills Gudbrand, kinsman of the earl. They search the abandoned viking ships and it came from Hávard the hewer whose feet have been cut off. They kill him. Earl Eirik asks Thorleif skuma why he looks so rough and Thorleif replies he seems to have been wounded when he attacked Vagn. Then he dies. This exchange seems to be there solely to justify what is, presumably, an old piece of skaldic verse attributed to Einarr skalagramm.
36 – Execution of the Jomsvikings The Norwegians see Vagn’s men on the skerry, row out and being them back prisoner, tie all 70 of them with ropes. Thorkel leira is appointed to execute them and, one by one, they ask whether they are afraid to die. They say no and one by one are beheaded, each one being asked the question and giving some kind of witty or ironic reply. One wants to be struck in the face so as to see death. Another is disappointed he won’t get to have sex with the earl’s wife, and so on.
37 – The famous story of the viking who requests a thrall to hold his hair up as he’s executed and who, as the blow falls, jerks his head down so that the thrall’s arms are chopped off above the wrist, and who then jokes, ‘Whose are these hands in my hair?’ He is killed and Earl Hakon orders all the others executed without delay. When they come to Vagn he replies he will only die content if he fulfils his vow: what was that? To kill Thorkel leira and lie with his daughter Ingibjorg without his consent. Thorkel is so furious he lunges at Vagn; Bjorn the Welshman pushes him over so the blow misses, Thorkel stumbles and the sword cuts through Vagn’s rope, freeing him, so that he grabs the sword and kills Thorkel with one blow. Hakon orders him killed on the spot but Earl Eirik overrules him on this and, in general, requests the rest of the Jomsviking be spared. Eirik asks old white-haired Bjorn the Welshman if he’s the brave man who returned to rescue a man from the hall (in chapter 14). When he says yes Eirik says will you accept your life from me and Bjorn says only if Vagn and all the others are spared. The Jomsvikings’ bravery in face of death and legendary solidarity are confirmed.

38 – Aftermath Earl Eirik grants Vagn his freedom and his wish, namely to marry Ingobjorg. He returns to Denmark, to his estates at Fyn, and lives to old age and many famous men are descended from him. Bjorn returns to rule Wales with a mighty reputation. Sigvaldi returns to his estates in Sjaelland and his wife Astrid. He rules wisely, as do the others ie Thorkell the Tall, Sigurd-kapa etc. But Búi, who had leapt overboard with no hands, is said to have turned into a serpent and ever afterwards guarded his gold. Earl Hákon gains great fame from his victory but doesn’t live much longer. Christian Olaf Trygvasson arrives in Norway and the fiercely pagan Hákon, on the run, is murdered by his own thrall while hiding in a pigsty (995). Olaf rules and converts all of Norway to Christianity.

‘That is the end of the story of the Jomsvikings.’

Related links

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Jomsvikings in a naval battle by Nils Bergslien, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

The Saga of Ref the Sly

Króka-Refs saga or The Saga of Ref the Sly is a relatively short one, with just 20 chapters.

Summary

Everyone thinks Ref is a layabout till he kills his overbearing neighbour and escapes to Greenland where he kills five members of a family who slander him then outwits his pursuers using a Heath-Robinson system of waterworks then comes to Norway where he kills a retainer of the king who’s trying to rape his wife then flees to Denmark where the king lends him the forces to defeat the retainer’s avengers. The King of Denmark rewards him for his ingenuity and generosity, with farms where he and his family are happy. In later life Ref undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome from which he never returns.

Detailed synopsis

1 – In the days of King Hakon (931-964), foster-son of King Athelstan of England (924-927), there lived at Breidafjord a man named Stein, married to Thorgerd, and they have a lazy sluggard son Ref. A rich overbearing man named Thorbjorn moves into the neighbouring farm and starts grazing his sheep on Stein’s land. Stein politely asks him to refrain.
2 – Stein falls ill and dies. He advises his wife Thorgerd to sell the farm and move in with her brother suspecting Thorbjorn will become a bad neighbour. Thorgerd is sentimentally attached to the farm so doesn’t move. She hires a small wiry man named Bardi to guard the border, he builds a hut down by the stream which forms the boundary and makes sure Thorbjorn’s cattle don’t stray onto Thorgerd’s land.
3 – Rannveig, Thorbjorn’s wife, says the cattle aren’t giving as much milk. It’s all the fault of Bardi. Thorbjorn rides to his shed and kills him and hides his body. Thorger’s people notice Thorbjorn’s livestock wandering across the stream and eating their hay so Thorgerd sends out and they find Bardi’s body. Thorgerd bitterly berates her lazy son Ref, wishing she’d had a daughter. Ref takes up a halberd, rides straight to Thorbjorn’s farm, walks into his closet and runs him through with the halberd. As he is leaving a hue and cry is raised so he hides in a woodpile until night then sneaks off. His mother Thorgerd greets him as a true man.
4 – Thorgerd sends Ref west to stay with her brother Gest Oddleifsson. Gest notices he is good with his hands and determines to bring out this skill. He gives Ref tools and wood and iron and he builds a shed and then spends three months building a perfect sailing boat. (This character, Gest Oddleifson or Gest the Wise, appears in no fewer than five sagas – Gísla saga, Laxdæla saga, Njáls saga, Kristni saga, Króka-Refs saga, and Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings.)
5 – Gest goes to see it and sure enough it is a fine ocean-going vessel. He gives it to Ref. Turns out a Norwegian captian once stayed with Stein and Ref carefully observed the model ailing ship his son owned. — Games are coming up. A boisterous neightbour named Gellir comes asks Ref if he’s going to take part. No. Not even in wrestling? No. Gellir challenges him then and there and leaps on him. They tussle, Ref proves the stronger and throws him. Angered, Gellir strikes his spear, but doesn’t injure him.
6 – News goes round about Ref’s ship and Gellir, passing by, stops in to see it, at which Ref kills him at one blow with an axe. Gest praises him for acting so decisively and approves his plan to sail to Greenland. Ref sails with many fine men. Storms take them to an uninhabited fjord where they winter till they can sail to ‘the settlement’. Her Ref builds an impressive hall for a man named Bjorn. Ref falls in love with Bjorn’s daughter Helga and marries her and takes over Bjorn’s farm. He lives there eight years during which time Bjorn dies and Ref and Helga have two sons, Stein and Bjorn.
7 – Coming home from the workshop Ref sees a polar bear tracking him and turns back to the workshop to get his axe. When he returns the polar bear is dead, killed by the sons of nearby Thorgils. The Thorgilssons use the incident to call Ref gay and effeminate, to invent the slur that he was expelled from Iceland for being gay, and they go about telling everyone. Ref hears but does nothing. He quietly sells his land for cash and prepares a ship.
8 – Thormod, Helga’s foster-father, confronts Ref about the rumours that he is gay. Ref fashions a massive mean spear so sharp it can slice whiskers, goes to Thorgil’s house and slices him open before going down to the Thorgilsson’s boathouse and killing all four of the sons. Then he notifies the people he’s sold the farm to that they can take occupancy, he loads  his ship with Helga, his sons and foster-father Thormod and sails away.
9 – Thorgils’ son-in-law Gunnar searches for Ref everywhere, setting lookouts on the headlands and searching north into the wilderness. After four years nothing is heard of them.
10 – A man called Bard is sent out from Norway by King Harald Sigurdarson (1046-1066) to Greenland to get ivory. He meets Gunnar at the settlement and learns about Ref’s exploits. He persaudes Gunnar to launch a sailing expedition along the coast to find Ref and they persist till Bard finds a hidden fjord with a well-built fortification. When they try to burn it Ref channels water onto their fires.
11 – Bard and Gunnar go back to the settlement and Bard prepares to return to Norway. Gunnar gives him three presents for the king: a polar bear, an ivory board game, a walrus skull inlaid with gold.
12 – Bard arrives in Norway and presents the king these gifts. The king asks what Gunnar wants for it and Bard says the king’s help in tracking down a fox. The king has heard all about it and admires Ref for being a ‘real man’.
13 – The King advises Bard not to return to Greenland, prophesying that he will die, but Bard says he promised Gunnar. The the king uses his kingly wisdom to explain to Bard the probable technology behind the fort which can’t be burned ie the planks are hollow and filled with water from a lake further up the valley: dig down till you find the pipes and break them; then you can burn the fort.
14 – Meanwhile Ref calls on the men who offered their support in the settlement to come and join him. They do so and Ref launches his Iceland boat and stocks it with greenland wares, but remains in the fort a little longer. Bard arrives in Greenland, joins up with Gunnar and sails back to the hidden fjord. Here they did down as the king advised to find water pipes and sever them. Then they fire the fortress. Ref asks who gave them this clever advice. As the flames are rising higher, the entire wall facing the water suddenly topples forward, crushing some of the attackers and creating a smooth launching pad and down it rolls a ship on wheels (!) and into the water and sails away.
15 – a) Bard’s ship gains on Ref.s but Ref orders his men to stop rowing so Bard’s overshoots at which point Ref transfixes Bard with a spear and his son cuts the sail’s stays so the mast falls over board. Now they easily escape. b) But Gunnar’s men launch their boat and quickly pursue, but Ref escapes. Gunnar returns to the settlement very unhappy. Bard’s men return to Norway and tell the king of Bard’s death who said it is as he predicted.
16 – Ref and his sons board the main ship and they all sail to Norway, arriving near Trondheim where the king is staying. Ref changes his name to Narfi and wears a fake white beard and pretends to be an old merchant. While he and his sons are attending an assembly of the king, a local braggart and favourite of the king’s named Sheath-Grani came and tried to ravish Helga. As soon as he realised she was alone and unguarded Ref had set off for their hut and discovered Grani in the act. He chased him to a fence where Grani tried to talk his way out of it but Ref skewered him with a spear then hid the body. He realised he must declare it so told his men to ready the ship, then went to the king’s assembly where he interrupted and described the encounter and killing and ran off before anyone understood, joining the little boat which they rowed out to where the ship was moored and so sailed off.
17 – King Harald unravels Ref’s long elaborate coded message to realise Grani is dead. He deduces it must be the act of the well-known troublemaker Ref. He orders his men to search high and low for him.
18 – They sail directly to Denmark where they have an audience with the king who is impressed with Ref’s resourcefulness and the riches he’s brought from Greenland. He asks to keep his two older sons at court, while he finds Ref a farm to settle.
19 – Bard’s men arrive back in Norway (as mentioned in chapter 15) and, along with the killing of his retainer Grani, King Harald nicknames Ref Steinsson Ref the Sly and outlaws him the length and breadth of Norway. He commissions Grani’s brother Eirik to go to Denmark with 60 men to kill him.
20 – As soon as Eirik’s force arrives they are greeted by an old white-bearded man using walking sticks who calls himself Sigtrygg who says he can guide them to Ref if they make a deal to give him an ounce of silver per man and free passage back to Norway. Then he takes two of Eirik’s men into a wood, overpower them, carry on to a headland the other side where there are two fine ships given to Ref by the king of Denmark with two hundred men with whom they attack Eirik, overcoming him and killing all but ten of his men. Ref imposes terms on Eirik saying he will let him live to return to King Harald and say he (Ref) will never cause him any more trouble. Ref gives them a rowing boat and impounds their fine long ship and gives it to the king of Denmark who is overjoyed at his ingenuity and success and generosity. In return he gives Ref some farms for his people. And ref takes his fake name Sigtrygg.

Like so many sagas, this one ends in a few last lines where old Sigtrygg undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome and dies on the way home. I guess the consistency with which all these pilgrims never return suggests both the actual danger and lengthiness of the journey – but also symbolises the way they’ve left their old lives and values never to return.

Chess?

‘Chapter 12 of Króka-Refs saga says that Bárðr brought gifts with him from Greenland when he visited the king of Norway. He gave the king an ivory board game as a gift, and the board was both a hneftafl (for the Viking board game) and skáktafl (for chess). Perhaps it was laid out for a chess-like game on one side and for hneftafl on the other.’ (From the Hurstwic website)

George Clark translates the relevant passages as: ‘The second was a board game skilfully made of walrus ivory…The board game was both for the old game with one king and the new with two.’

Related links

Reviews of other sagas

Thorstein Staff-Struck, Thidrandi whom the goddesses slew, Authun and the bear

‘It is useless to beg off, said Bjarni. ‘We must fight on.’ (Thorstein)

Gwyn Jones’s OUP volume, Erik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas, contains a number of texts so brief they are considered short stories rather than sagas – the Icelandic term for them is Þáttr. There are some 66 þættir of Icelanders ie which have the same feel as the sagas of Icelanders, are about ordinary people, not legendary heroes or gods. Most of them are digressions in longer kings’ sagas. There’s ongoing debate about whether they can be read meaningfully as stories in their own right, or only make sense in the context of their larger homes. I think they are like chips from grander sculptures, or sketches an artist makes in preparation for painting a large composition, or like chinks in a wall through which we can get a tiny, partial view into the rich and strange panoramas of the longer sagas.

All three are overtly Christian.

1. Thorstein Staff-Struck

The same Bjarni of Hof who features in Vapnfirðinga Saga here also appears as a noble and magnanimous chieftain:

A horse fight escalates until Thord hits big, strong, silent Thorstein in the face with a staff, who is nicknamed Thorstein Staff-Struck. He refuses to take revenge on his attacker until he is goaded beyond endurance by his grumpy ex-Viking father, Thorarin, at which he storms off and kills Thord, who happens to be horse-keeper to Bjarni. Bjarni has Thorstein outlawed but takes no active steps against him until he, too, is goaded by the overheard sneers of his retainers. He orders the two gossipers in question, Thorhall and Thorvald, to kill Thorstain but they muck it up and are killed themselves and Thorstein ties their bodies to their horses and sends them back to Hof. Again Bjarni does nothing. Until his wife Rannveig berates him for being the talk of the valley for his inaction. Next moring Bjarni rides briskly over to Sunnadal and explains to Thorstein they must fight. Thorstein asks to say goodbye to his father, who is thrilled his son is finally acting like a man. Bjarni and Thorstein fight single combat on a raised knoll. There are a folk-tale-like three interruptions: 1. Bjarni grows thirsty and asks quarter to drink; Thorstein remarks that he’s using a bad sword; they start fighting again until 2. Bjarni’s shoelace comes undone and he asks quarter to do it up, during which Thorstein goes into the farm and gets much better swords and shields for them. They fight on. Finally 3. having struck away each other’s shields they are defenceless and Bjarni says he doesn’t want to do a foul deed. He will forgive Thorstein killing three of his housecarles if Thorstein will become his man and serve him. Thorstein agrees. Bjarni goes in to deceive the old Viking Thorarin that he’s killed his son and offers him honour and a place at the table at Hof but when he goes to sit next to the old man he finds him fumbling for a big knife to kill him. He leaps up but nonetheless invites Thorarin to come live at Hof. Thorstein goes to live at Hof and follows Bjarni loyally till his death day.

Bjarni fully maintained his reputation, and was the more beloved and more magnanimous the older he grew. He was the most undaunted of men, and became a firm believer in Christ in the last years of his life. He went abroad and made a pilgrimage south and on that journey he died. (Gwyn Jones, 1961)

Bjarni maintained his honour, and he became more popular and more even-keeled the older he grew. He dealt with difficulties better than anyone, and he turned strongly towards religion during the latter part of his life. Bjarni travelled abroad and made a pilgrimage to Rome. He died on that journey. (Anthony Maxwell, 1997)

2. Thidrandi whom the goddesses slew

Þiðranda þáttr ok Þórhalls (literally the story of ‘Þiðrandi and Þórhall’) is a þáttr preserved in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. It is a short piece of strikingly Christian propaganda. — Sidu-Hall invites his friend Thorhall Seer (wise and able to see the future) to come stay at his farm at Hof in Alftafjord, to stay till the harvest feast is over. Thorhall grows steadily more gloomy and predicts a dire and wonderful event. On the night of the feast, amid dense snowstorms, Thorhall warns nobody to go out of doors. Late in the night there is a repeated knock at the door. Sidu-Hall’s beloved and noble son Thidrandi eventually gets impatient and goes unlocks it. There is nobody there. He ventures out into the snow and sees nine women dressed in black riding his way and nine women in white riding his way. The black women arrive first and set about him with swords, he defends himself bravely. In the morning his body is discovered and he has just time to describe what he saw and what happened before he dies. Thorhall interprets it as the pagan fetches or spirits of the people in the hall knowing that soon Christianity will come and the old religion be abandoned and they are exacting a price for their betrayal. Distraught, Hall moves and, months later, at his new farm Thorhall burst out laughing with happiness.

‘I am laughing,’ replied Thorhall, ‘because many a hill is opening , and every living creature, great and small, is packing his bags and making this his moving-day.’

And a little later Iceland was converted to Christianity (as described in Njal’s saga and others.)

3. Authun and the bear

Auðunar þáttr vestfirska (literally ‘the story of Auðun of the Westfjords’). This is a rare story which is entirely nice with noone getting axed at all.

Authun’s friends sponsor him with money to go abroad. He goes to Greenland where he spends all his money on a fine bear; then to Norway where King Harald III (1047-66) wants to see him. Harald asks for the bear but Authun says he wants to give him to King Svein of Denmark. Does he realise Norway is at war with Denmark, Harald asks. But lets him go. Authun is penniless by the time he reaches Denmark but manages to get an audience with King Svein II (1047-76) who is charmed by the present of the bear and asks Authun to become a retainer. Eventually Authun asks if he can leave and Svein says no, but Authin explains it’s to go on pilgrimage to Rome and Svein says that is the only reason that would cause him to say yes. Authun is on pilgrimage and return penniless and hides from the king until he notices him and makes him come forward and congratulates him on his piety and dignity and makes him his cup-bearer. Again after a while Authun says he wants to leave and the king is cross until Authun explains it’s to go and provide for his aged mother in Iceland, to which the king agrees. He gives Authun a ship in exchange for the bear, and a purse of silver and a gold ring to give only to a great man he is under an obligation to. And so Authun leaves King Svein, well-beloved, and sails to Norway where he is greeted by King Harald who asks what Svein gives him and Authin lists it all up to the ring which Authun now presents to Harald for not taking the bear from his forcibly and for not killing him but letting him on his way. And the king thinks it is nobly done and gives Authun presents in return and lets him sail back to Iceland.

The heroic ethos

‘It is useless to beg off, said Bjarni. ‘We must fight on.’ He and Thorstein are technically free to walk away, but both would lose what is more important to them than life, the strangely twisted version of ‘honour’ which requires them to fulfil the roles dictated to them by a society which values ‘face’ above everything. In his introduction Glyn Jones defines the northern heroic ethos well:

The Icelandic conception of character and action was heroic. The men and women of the sagas had a comparatively uncomplicated view of human destiny, and of the part they were called on to play in face of it. They had, it is not too much to say, an aesthetic appreciation of conduct. There was a right way to act: the consequences might be dreadful, hateful; but the conduct was more important than its consequences… It is a saga reading of character and destiny: to see one’s fate and embrace it, with this curious aesthetic appreciation of what one is doing – it was this that made one a saga personage. (Gwyn Jones)

Saga sayings

  • Even doers are done for once wounds befall them.
  • None takes warning from his fellow’s warming.

Horse fighting

Apparently common in Viking Iceland, along with various other sports and ball games. Almost always a prelude to trouble, like the horse fight in Njal’s saga, chapter 59, where the feud between Gunnar and the Starkardssons stems from a horse fight which degenerates into a people fight. Horse fighting continued in Iceland well into the 20th century and is still carried out in China and some other southeast Asian countries.

Related links

Old photo of a horse fight in Iceland, 1930

A horse fight in Iceland, 1930

Other sagas

The Vapnfjord Men

Vapnfirðinga Saga, so obscure there doesn’t seem to be an English version online, no matter how antique, and it only warrants a couple of lines in its Wikipedia entry. Nonetheless, it is compactly powerful and, at the end, strangely moving.

Summary

As a boy Helgi kills an outlaw who predicts great kin-hurt for him. Helgi and Geitir of Sunndale, once close friends and brothers-in-law, fall out and become bitter enemies until Helgi is killed, whereupon his son, Bjarni, kills Geitir (his foster-father and uncle), whereupon Geitir’s son Thorkel repeatedly tries to kill Bjarni until, in a moving finale, they are reconciled.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Helgi lives at Hof in Vapnfjord, on the east coast of Iceland. He is big, strong, handsome, overbearing and headstrong. When twelve he saw his family’s bull fighting with a kinsman’s, and attached a spike to the forehead of his bull, which promptly gored the other to death, hence his nickname Brodd- or Spike-Helgi. Two farmers live near Hof, Skidi and Svart. A dispute arises about grazing, Svart kills Skidi. Still aged 12 Brodd-Helgi gets Svart outlawed. But the outlaw makes raids on farmer’s stock from a nearby heath. Still age 12 Helgi ties a flat stone to his chest as armour, tracks Svart to his lair on the heath, chops off his leg and kills him. The dying Svart curses him: ‘Such kin-hurt shall persist in your family from now on that it will be remembered forever.’ He gains kudos for this act.

2 – Helgi becomes Geitir’s brother-in-law Lyting Asbjarnasson lives at Krossavik across Sunnadal from Hof. He has sons Geitir and Blæng, daughters Halla and Rannveig. Helgi marries Halla: they have daughter Thordid and sons Lyting and Bjarni. There is loving-friendship between Helgi and Geitir, they are always together.

Thorleif and Hrafn One day a ship comes to Vapnfjord skippered by Thorleif the Christian, partnered by Hrafn, very tight with  his money and with a secret chest. Helgi rides down and offers Hrafn his hospitality and to buy some valuables. Hrafn refuses both offers and Helgi goes away angry. Geitir arrives and Hrafn offers to go stay with him. The Egilssons hold an autumn feast and it is noticed how Helgi and Geitir spend the time engrossed in private conversation. In winter there are annual games held at Hagi. Geitir persuades the Norwegian to go, despite his reluctance. They are sitting in the hall when news comes that Hrafn has been murdered by someone unknown. A big man named Tjorvi was missing all the day Hrafni was murdered and, since he’s a friend of Helgi and Geitir, people suspect thay conspired to have Hrafni killed. Helgi and Geitir agree to divide dead Hrafn’s goods after the spring Assembly. In the spring Thorleif the Christian readies his ship for sailing. When Helgi and Geitir and everyone else is a the Assembly, Thorleif rows to Krossavik, takes all Hrafn’s goods, carries them back to his boat. Helgi and Geitir are tipped off and take to small boats go out and threaten Thorleif but he sails off regardless, returns to Norway and returns Hrafn’s goods to his kin, winning great reputation. Helgi is particularly upset about this and starts asking Geitir where Hrafn’s secret box, reputedly full of treasure, was hidden. Geitir says he knows nothing about it but Helgi refuses to believe him and a coldness sets in.

The following summer Thorleif returns in a new ship with German partners but Helgi learns he has made his share over to Hrafn’s heirs ie even killing him won’t get any goods for Helgi. Helgi discovers Thorleif has upset a priestess for not aying his dues to the temple and commissions a retainer called Ketil to summons him about it, but Thorleif behaves so hospitably to Ketil that the latter deliberately loses the case when it’s heard at the Assembly to Helgi’s fury. Thorleif is now out of this saga (having behaved, we may think, very well). Helgi berates Geitir for forcing him to make these desperate ploys which fail, and thus humiliating him. Their friendship is over.

3 – Helgi divorces Halla Halla falls ill. Helgi divorces her and marries a younger model. Geitir comes collects his sister and takes her back to Krossavik, but wants Helgi to return her half of the farm. In the spring Geitir rides to Hof to demand Halla’s money a second time but Helgi will not pay. Geitir summons Brodd-Helgi to the Sunnadal Assembly but Helgi arrives with more men and overpowers his case.

Thord and Thormod Two farmers live in Sunnadal, Thord is Helgi’s retainer and Thormod is Geitir’s retainer. Thord complains to Helgi that Thormod is using too much of the common land’s grazing. A little later Helgi summons Thord to ride to the common land where he kills all Thormod’s cattle. Thormod complains to Geitir who says he’s not getting dragged in. Next Helgi takes his carles and chops down all the timber on the common, Thormod’s as well as Thord’s and takes it to Hof. This time Geitir responds to Thormod’s complaints and tells him to muster eight kinsman and ride to Hof when Helgi isn’t there and formally summons Thord. However, Helgi hears about the plan and has his housecarles prepared: as Thormod rides up to the farm they all rush out and attack, killing Thormod and some of the others. Helgi throws their bodies in a spare barn. The survivors are distraught they cannot bury the bodies, so Geitir devises a plan for most of them to go and loiter around outside the farm distracting while Egil’s sons go with, apparently, coal baskets, and retrieve the bodies. It works perfectly to Helgi’s annoyance.But there is no blood-money paid for the killing of Thormod and Geitir still hasn’t got Halla’s money.

Halla’s illness (cancer?) becomes acute and she summons Helgi for a last interview while Geitir is away at an assembly. Shortly afterwards she dies and is dead when Geitir returns. Now there is out-and-out enmity between the former friends.

A ship arrives at Vapnfjord carrying Thorarin Egilsson a canny merchant. Helgi invites him to stay. Then Geitir invites him to stay. Then Helgi gives him a gift of five fine horse. Then Geitir tells him to send it back. Thorarin spends the winter with Geitir but sails off in the spring. All Geitir’s kinsmen come to see him demanding he do something about Helgi’s overbearing behaviour. Geitir gathers support from other chieftains Gudmund the Mighty and Olvir the Wise.

4 – The next spring there is a famine. Helgi and Geitir ride to the Assembly with eight or so retainers each. Helgi goes see his foster-mother who has second sight. She is weeping over a dream she had in which all the main characters are oxes and bulls and gore each other and avenge each other. As is customary, Helgi angrily ignores her dream which is, of course, true.

[HIATUS Here there is a gap in the manuscript which the editor fills with deductions from the text and a preserved poem about these events: At the Sunnadalsmynni Helgi, his son Lyting and other retainers are killed. Geitir submits to the Assembly where wergild is awarded against him and various of his followers exiled including Tjorvi the Big who is declared an outlaw. Bjarni survives his father Helgi and awards himself a hundred of silver. Geitir is his uncle.]

Bjarni settles at Hof with Thorgerd (Helgi’s second wife and his step-mother) and his brothers and sisters. On the Moving Days he hears Tjorvi is still loitering by his house so he leaps on his horse and chases him, catching him just before he reaches his home farm and spearing him to death.

Bjarni marries. Oddly he and his uncle, the killer of his father, Geitir attend feasts together and all is well. The men hold a meeting in the last month of winter at Thorbrandsstadir. As Bjarni sets off his step-mother Thorgerd takes out something to wear and whenhe opens the bundle Bjarni revals the cloak all covered in blood that Helgi was wearing when he was killed. Furious Bjarni storms out and to the meeting. After some trivial exchanges Bjarni snaps and strikes Geitir with an axe, immediately repenting  his action, he holds him as he dies. Noone expects reparation. Geitir is buried. Bjarni drives Thorgerd away in disgust. Geitir’s brother Blæng keeps the farm at Krossavik going. Geitir’s son Thorkel returns from abroad. Bjarni makes him any offer of reparation but Thorkel demurs. Everyone thinks he must be set on revenge.

5 – Three attempts on Bjarni’s life 1. In the winter Thorkel Geitirsson sets spies on Hof to discover how many men are there and Bjarni has counter-spies disinform him. An uneasy peace. 2. The following spring Bjarni is making his way down to the sea when he sees eight men approaching his three; they seize a chopping block, cover it with a cloak and put it in Bjarni’s horse while he hides in a nearby sheiling. Thorkel follows the three horses only for them to eventually ditch the chopping block and Thorkel to be humiliated. 3. Thorkel sends for the sons of Droplaug and recruits them to go burn Bjarni. However next morning Thorkel has one of his periodic illnesses and can’t go. Keen Droplaugssons want to go and when Thorkel insists they can’t because only he can lead the expediton they ride off in disgust. So Bjarni is spared three times.

6 – Next spring both men attend the Assembly with followers. They follow different routes home, staying with different retainers. As Thorkel leaves his sister Thordis gives him a fine necklace and fastens it tightly. Next morning Bjarni and his men pass close to the farm where Thorkel is staying. He tells them to ride in sets of three to make it look like they are less. Thorkel and his men wake and find the tracks and pursue them through the snow to near a farm called Eyvindarsstadir. here Bjarnis resolves to turn and take what is coming.

The battle of Bodvarsdal The two sides fight. Blæng (Geitir’s brother) kills Birning then cracks Bjarni over the neck but he is saved by the lucky necklace. Blæng strikes again but Bjarni gets the better of him; then Thorkel attacks him but is wounded in the arm, and severla others fall killed until Eyvind and his womenfolk come out to break up the fight. Thorkel and his go home to Krossavik but Eyvind accompanies Bjarni and his back to Hof where Thorvard Leech comes to cure them. Bjarni goes straight to the kinsmen of his supporters who were killed making them noble offers.

Reconciliation When he is well Bjarni asks Thorvard Leech to go cure Thorkel who is ailing, and he does, and Thorkel rewards him handsomely. Thorkel’s farm languishes with his men ill. Bjarni learns of this and tells a passing farmer to invite Thorkel’s whole household to come and stay at Hof, or offers hay to feed his livestock. Thorkel’s wife hears it and says it is a noble offer. Thorkel saddles up with 12 followers and rides to Hof and there Bjarni greets him and offers him full reparation, whatever he wants, and both sides are fully reconciled and keep the peace till their dying days. Bjarni becomes renowned for a brave fair man. Thorkel successful at lawsuits. In his old age Krossavar gives out and Bjarni invites him to stay at Hof where he does until he is an old man.

Saga sayings

  • Word carries though mouth stands still. (3)
  • He with a short knife must try, try again. (3)

Translation

By Gwyn Jones from the OUP volume, Erik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas published in 1961. It is fluent and easy to read with the occasional archaic phrasing, but it doesn’t interfere with the sense and makes it more like a boy’s story you might have read in your youth.

I can’t find an English translation of it online.

Related links

Other sagas

Vikings: Life and Legend @ the British Museum

This spring’s blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum is a massive one about the Vikings, the first show on the subject since 1980. It’s an international affair, mounted in collaboration with the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It is wonderfully comprehensive, covering almost every theme or element you can image including trade patterns, coins and precious objects, religion and idols, war and weapons, homes and domestic arrangements, and the legacy of placenames and language.

Background

My experience was heavily influence by two readings of Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross. What makes that book so pleasurable is his willingness to lay out the (often ambiguous and obscure) evidence, explain the different interpretations historians have put on it, and leave us to make our own minds up. Thus he shows that the start and the end point of the ‘Viking age’ depends which country you’re talking about and a number of other factors, for example defining at what stage Scandinavian leaders ceased to be raider-chieftains and became something like what we mean by ‘kings’ – a pretty grey area.

In England the Viking Age probably starts with the famous attack on the mainland, at Lindisfarne in 793, and lasts until the defeat of King Harald Hardrada (Hard-Ruler) who attempted to recapture the Kingdom of York and was defeated by the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 – a date generally more familiar from the battle Harold then had to fight a few weeks later down on the south coast, and which didn’t turn out so well. In Ireland they date the end to the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. In Normandy the start and end points are different again. And so on.

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark. Copper alloy. (Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark)

The exhibition cuts through these and other problems/issues/enjoyable quibbles by defining the The Viking Age as 800–1050. Similarly, they boldly define the word ‘viking’ – which Ferguson spends pages explaining is obscure and has a variety of possible meanings and derivations – in the traditional way as meaning pirate or raider.

I can see the practical need to define terms and set clear parameters, but the exhibition sometimes skims over issues. It is very broad, covering all aspects of life and trade and war and domestic arrangements and boat-building and burials and gods and farm design and building projects and politics: but sometimes feels a little light, lacking follow-up on themes just as you’re starting to get interested. Then again, that’s what the shop is for, providing plenty of resources to investigate further, including the  weighty catalogue and many history books like Ferguson’s. It can be seen as a very comprehensive taster.

Images

The exhibition largely consists of objects and artefacts, most of them small, many of them coins and brooches etc. By contrast with these small objects (which are frequently difficult to see because of the crowds – this exhibition is PACKED), the most memorable images for me were a series of stunning photos of the Vikings’ stomping-grounds and locations.

A wonderful video in an early room held me spellbound as it traced the routes of Viking expeditions across the North Sea, to Iceland and Greenland, round France to Spain, across the Baltic and down the Russian rivers to the Black Sea etc – and for each route brought up large and beautifully composed photos of, for example, a carved cross in Ireland, the site of the settlement in Greenland, the steppes of Ukraine, a beaver dam in Poland, which conveyed more than anything else the physical geography, and therefore the mental and imaginative terrain, these people inhabited. These photos are almost works of art in themselves!

Network and Empire

For one major emphasis of the exhibition is on the trading aspects of Viking culture, on the amazingly farflung nature of its communications and commerce, so that silver dirhams from Baghdad are found in ship burials in Iceland etc. Thus the Vale of York trove is displayed in its entirety (and the main affect on me was surprise at how small a space such a famous haul amounts to: it looked like it could all fit into a cereal bowl).

Photo of the Vale of York hoard

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver. (British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York. Copyright of he Trustees of the British Museum)

There’s another interesting thread running through the exhibition explaining how Viking artefacts show the influence of designs from Anglo-Saxon England or from the Frankish empire, explaining in detail how slightly differing designs can help both date and locate objects, scholars are now so expert in regional variations and styles.

Objects

Case after case displayed the kinds of objects you associate with archaeology: coins and brooches and pins and combs and pots (interestingly, in their home territory they had no pottery but used carved stone or wood), rings and bracelets and necklets made from silver or gold.

I particularly liked the objects which had runes carved into them – for example, the Christian reliquary which had runes naming the new heathen owner is evocative of raids and pillage and the great culture clash which Ferguson puts at the heart of the Viking story, between literate Christians and illiterate pagans.

Photo of a carved Odin figure

Odin or volva figure, 800-1050. Lejre, Zealand, Denmark. Silver with niello. (Photo Ole Malling. Copyright of the Roskilde Museum)

The boat

The exhibition publicity gives pride of place to a huge longboat which dominates the final, enormous room. That’s true and not true: certainly the exhibition leads through half a dozen normal sized rooms into a massive bay or airplane hangar of a space and fitting almost the entire length is the metal frame of a vast longboat.

Photo of the Roskilde 6 boat

The Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered. The thirty-seven meter long warship was built in southern Norway around 1025, and deliberately sunk in Denmark in the mid-11th century. (Copyright of the National Museum of Denmark.)

This warship is one of a series found at Roskilde in Denmark and now labelled Roskilde 6. A hundred and twenty feet long with forty oars to each side, you see it from a viewing platform slightly above, and then, as you walk along the side, it looms larger and larger, until you are on ground level next to its keel and experience a powerful feeling of just how strong the rowers must have been, how fast and sleek it must have moved through the water, how terrified anyone on the receiving end of its raiding must have felt.

However, I was slightly disappointed to realise that almost the entire object is made of modern metal struts, including both prow and tailpiece. No romantic carved dragon, just a modern steel strut. Only long rows of planks along the very bottom give you a sense of the clinker-building technique and looks, frankly, like a very long rowing boat. Nonetheless, the sheer length, as you walk along it, does give you a hair-raising sense of the mighty physical presence, of the fear and terror it must have inspired.

The Jelling Stone

As vivid and wonderful, for me, as the ship, was a replica in the same room of the famous Jelling Stone, a massive 10th century runestone located at the town of Jelling in Denmark. Ferguson tells the story that it was found on the beach and ordered dragged to its present location by the mighty King Harald Bluetooth who ordered one side carved with Heathen zoomorphic patterns, the other with a carved image of Christ, and runes inscribed along the bottom which read: ‘King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.’

As with classical statues, it is a dizzying shock to see the thing painted in bright day-glo colours and realise the world of these people of long-ago wasn’t as black and white and sparse as the few surviving relics often imply, but was as bright and colourful and decorated as their means allowed.

Audio commentary and price

The audio commentary was voiced by Sandy Toksvig who can’t really escape the comic tone which 30 years as a stand-up comedian and TV presenter have ingrained into her voice. A generation ago it would have been narrated by Magnus Magnusson, saga scholar and historian, pointing out depths and connections. Now, a comedian, making it more ‘accessible’.

The exhibition costs £16.50 to get in, plus £4.50 for the audio. If you add the transport and any merchandise you’re tempted to buy, it’s a pricey experience. But if you’re a fan, totally worth it!

Vikings: Life and Legend continues at the British Museum until 22 June.

Related links

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Replica of the Jelling Stone showing how it would have looked with its original paint

Sagas

The saga of Hen-Thorir

Hænsna-Þóris saga takes place in Borgafjord in the west of Iceland. The old William Morris translation included a handy map:

Map of the setting of Hen-Thorirs saga

Map of the setting of Hen-Thorir’s saga

Short synopsis

  • An unfortunate misunderstanding leads to the burning of well-thought-of chieftain Blund-Ketil.
  • His son recruits powerful allies and brings the burners to justice, not without several bloody fights.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Odd Onundarson aka Tungu-Odd has sons Thorodd and Thorvald and daughters Thurid and Jofrid and lives at Borgafjord. He is a mean cheat.
Arngrim Helgason aka Arngrim the Priest, has a son Helgi and lives at Nordtunga.
Blund-Ketil lives at Ornolfsdal and has a son, Herstein. He is rich and righteous-hearted.
Thorkel Trefil lives at Svignaskard.
Thorir, a traveling salesman who makes a lot of money but is disliked ‘for there could hardly be a more detestable creature alive.’ He once went on a trading trip with a bag full of hens, hence…

Thorir visits Arngrim to ask if he can foster his son, Helgi, offers him half his money but in exchange Arngrim must support him come what may.
A ship from Norway puts in and Odd the trader is first on the scene and, when the Norwegian refuses to sell his entire stock to Odd cheap, Odd bans anyone else from dealing with him and him from moving his goods. Herstein Blund-Ketilsson tells his father who invites the Norwegian captain to stay; they load all his wares onto 120 horses and taken them to B-K’s farm. Odd hears the news and is miffed but does nothing since B-D has many friends.

2 – In the summer a thin crop of grass. By January many farmers are in dire straits. His tenants come to Blund-Ketil begging for hay and, reluctantly, he slaughters his own animals (horse, interestingly) and gives tenants hay. More tenants appeal until B-K suggests Thorir has plenty. They ride to see him and are greeted by Arngrim’s own son who is being fostered there, a sweet boy who tells the truth against tightwad Thorir. No matter what Blund-Keil offers Thorir refuses to sell him hay. Eventually, B-D says he will leave the right amount of money (hack silver) and take it, which he does, leaving Thorir seething.

3 – Thorir sets off to recruit supporters from local farmers: Arngrim says no. Odd says no.

4 – Thorvald Tongu-Oddson returns from a trip abroad and is invited to stay at Nordtunga with Arngrim. The sneaky vagrant Widefarer is also there and sprints off to alert Thorir, who promptly rides over and tells Thorvald his hard luck story and asks Thorvald to help him get his hay back: there and then he conveys half his property to Thorvald in exchange for him taking up the lawsuit about the hay. Bright and early the next morning Thorvald sets off with thirty men and rides to Thverarhlid where he confronts Blund-Ketil who, very generously, says he’s prepared to pay all the hay’s value plus gifts on top. Thorvald realises this is a handsome offer but Hen-Thorir goads him on to make the full summons using the strongest language possible. Blund-Keil goes into the house red with anger, the Norwegian trader asks whats wrong, B-K says he’s just been hugely insulted at which – the Norwegian captain runs straight out with his bow and arrow and fires at the posse killing a man. It turns out to be Helgi, the son of Arngrim the Priest. Thorir bends over him and claims his last words are ‘Burn Blund-Ketil’ which noble Arngrim doubts but they go hide in the woods and that evening return and set fire to Blund-Ketil’s farmstead and burn to death Blund-Ketil and all his household.

5 – Herstein recruits support Blund-Ketilsson’s son, Herstein, is at his foster-father’s Thorbjorn, and has a dream where he sees his father on fire. Herstein learns it is true and sets out to rally support. Thorbjorn says Odd has always offered his support but to their dismay Odd performs an arcane ritual (riding round the burnt building anti-clockwise) which claims B-K’s land for his own then leaves: his son Thorvald’s actions have certainly benefited the father! Thorbjorn manages the removal of the dead Norwegian captain’s goods to his farm. Then they visit Thorkel Trefil of Svignaskard. TT initially misinterprets it as just a request for hospitality and then realises he’s been dragged in.

The tricking of Gunnar Hlifarson Next they visit Gunnar Hlifarson, big, strong man married to a sister of Thord Bellow. (Gunnar has daughters Thurid and Jofrid.)  Thorkel pulls a trick, saying Herstein is desperate to marry Gunnar’s daughter, Thurid, and it must happen NOW. Gunnar gives in to their entreaties, at which point they tell him about the burning and he realises he’s now involved.

The tricking of Thord Bellow Next day Gunnar, Thorkel, Thorbjorn and Herstein ride to Thord Bellow’s farm at Hvamm, where Thurid is being fosterd and where they pull the same trick, strongly urging Thord himself to betrothe Thurid and himself to host the wedding which he does in front of witnesses. Then they tell him about the burning and he is very angry at being tricked, ‘feeling they had made a complete fool of him’.

The wedding of Herstein Blund-Ketilson and Thurid Gunnar’s-daughter A week later they’re married at Thord Bellow’s place. In the middle of the feast Herstein vows to have Arngrim the Priest outlawed at the next Assembly and Gunnar vows to have Thorvald Oddson outlawed. Thord refuses to join in. In the spring the Allies formally summons Arngrim and Thorvald to the Law-meeting at Thingnes.

6 – When he hears the news Hen-Thorir disappears with a dozen men. The Burners Odd and Arngrim muster forces. The Allies Thorkel Trefil and Thord Bellow muster their forces. The Allies with 240 men ride to cross the river Nordra at Thrælastraum but are met by Tungu-Odd with 480 men. The Battle of Thrælastraum Four men fall on each side with many injured. The Allies are prvented from attending the Law-meeting but declare they will raise the case at the National Assembly. (Gunnar and Herstein swap farms. Gunnar secures all the dead Norwegian’s timber.)

In the summer Thord sets out for the Assembly early and when Tungu-Odd arrives, bars his 360-strong force from approaching the sanctuary. A second pitched battle breaks out and six men are killed until third parties step in to force peace.

The incident of Herstein Blund-Ketilson and Hen-Thorir Herstein had been ill when Thord stopped by. Now he feels better and is doing some metalwork, at which he is skilled, when a retainer-farmer drops by and asks his help with a sick cow. He will not take no for an answer so Herstein sets off to see the cow but sees shields among the bushes and runs back to summon his own retainers. He then lets the farmer take him as arranged into an ambush but when Hen-Thorir and his 12 men leap out Herstein outnumbers them. They are all killed and Herstein himself beheads Hen-Thorir! He rides to the Assembly carrying it where he gains great honour.

At the Assembly Arngrim and all those present at the burning are outlawed except Thorvald Oddson who is exiled for three years. He goes abroad and is captured and made a slave in Scotland.

7 – The love of Thorodd Tungu-Oddson and Jofrid Gunnar’s-daughter Gunnar discovers the son of his enemy and brother of lead burner Thorodd paying suit to his daughter. He respects him for his honesty. Later in the year Odd declares he is going to clear Gunnar off the disputed land and raises a force of 90 men. Thorodd goes on ahead and Gunnar withdraws to his farmstead with his bow ready to make a last stand. Against all the odds however Thorodd assures Gunnar he wants to make peace and marry his daughter. Gunnar agrees just as Odd rides up with more men and is outraged that his son has let him down. Thorodd and Jofrid are married.

Strange epilogue That winter, having heard his brother is in captivity, Thorodd sets off abroad to ransom him. He never returns nor his brother. His father falls ill and dies of grief. The widow Jofrid later marries Thorstein Egilsson of Borg and so is the mother of Helga, central figure in the love triangle at the heart of the Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue.

Fates and destinies

  • Blund-Ketil burned to death
  • Herstein Blund-Ketilson marries Thurid Gunnar’s-daughter
  • Arngrim the Priest is exiled. His son Helgi is killed by an arrow fired by the Norwegian captain.
  • Tunga-Odd dies of grief
  • Thorvald Oddson his son is outlawed and captured as a slave in Scotland
  • Thorodd Oddson his other son marries Gunnar’s daughter Jofrid then goes missing.
  • Thorkel Trefil we hear nothing more.
  • Gunnar Hlifarson thrives on his farms.
  • Thord Bellow we hear nothing more.
  • and Hen-Thorir? he is killed and beheaded.

Sayings

A man’s worst company comes from home. (3)

Translation

This translation is by the great Norse scholar Gwyn Jones in the OUP volume, Erik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas published in 1961. It is fluent and easy to read with the occasional jarringly dated phrase or deliberate literary quote (‘You have fooled me to the top of my bent.’) Interestingly, Jones also seems to have made fewer, longer chapters – his version has seven chapters compared with William Morris’s 17 – which on balance I think is a bad thing: the sagas are fractionally easier to understand when divided into short, anecdote-focused sections.

Related links

The Althing in Session by WG Collingwood (Wikimedia Commons)

The Althing in Session by W.G. Collingwood (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

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