In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

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?

King Harald’s Saga

This is a relatively short and straightforward read in an excellent, fluent translation by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. It was published in 1966, 900 years after the events of the Great Year it describes, for this is the life story of King Harald Sigurdsson, known as Hardrada (hard ruler), the Norwegian king who invaded the north of England in late summer 1066 before being brought to battle, defeated and killed by Harold Godwinsson, King Harold II of England, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; the ill-fated Harold who then had to force-march his army south to confront that other invasion, from the Norman pretender William the Bastard, where things didn’t turn out quite so well.

King Harald’s saga is significantly different from the 15 or so sagas I’ve read hitherto for the following reasons:

  • authored all the so-called Family sagas are anonymous – Harald’s is by a known and famous medieval author and historian, Snorri Sturlason
  • poetry all the other sagas include poetry and several of them are about famous poets (Egil Skallagrimsson, Gunnlaug Wormtongue) – but the historian Snorri uses poetry as  evidence, carefully assessing what it tells us about the events it records
  • excerpt all the Family sagas are self-contained (though some key characters appear in more than one saga) – Harald’s is an excerpt from a much longer work, the Heimskringla, which is some 850 pages long
  • linear the Family sagas, although they concern the deeds of actual historical people, are consciously shaped and moulded for artistic affect – Harald’s saga, being an almost year-by-year account of his career, is much more linear
  • interference we often know nothing more about the heroes of the Family sagas than their saga tells us and, given the artistic intention of the text, it is satisfying and sufficient to accept the narrative at face value – whereas King Harald is a major player in the events of the dramatic year of 1066 which are taught to all schoolchildren, and so his character – and this text – is slightly swamped by our outside knowledge from numerous other sources.

Snorri Sturlason

One of the key figures in the creative upsurge which led to the explosion of saga-writing in Iceland during the 12th and 13th centuries is historian, Snorri Sturlason (c.1179-1241) was an astonishing renaissance man, poet and historian, politician, chieftain and lawyer. It is to Snorri that we owe one of the two key texts about Norse mythology, the Prose Edda. This long text exists as a primer on poetic technique, leading up to a long section about the different stanzas and methods available to Icelandic poets, for which the opening section about the Norse myths was only intended as a kind of background briefing, but which is now an invaluable source – the only source – we have for many of the tales of the Norse gods.

As if this wasn’t enough of an achievement, he is also famous, in Norway, for having written the definitive history of the kings of Norway, from the earliest mythical times up to around the time of his birth, 1177, the Heimskringla.

The Heimskringla

This vast text is a comprehensive history of the kings of Norway from the mists of prehistory and the doings of Odin and Loki, through to factually accurate accounts of the kings who ruled just before Snorri’s birth. It is divided into 16 chapters which are, in style and structure, very like sagas. By far the longest is the saga of St Olaf, taking up two thirds of the total.

But unlike the Family sagas, Snorri’s long text is very aware of the problems of historical technique, of weighing and comparing sources, of choosing which version of events to follow, and so on. Snorri explicitly addresses these in his preface and in other places. Maybe the most striking aspect of the book is the very strong reliance on poetry.

Poetry

Over 90 verses of skaldic poetry are quoted in the saga, there’s a verse on every page, and most of them are credited to named individuals since the kings of Norway had a special fondness for keeping poets around them to sing their praises and Harald was no exception. I liked this verse by Bolverk Arnorsson:

Bleak showers lashed the dark prows
Hard along the coastline;
Iron-shielded vessels
Flaunted colourful rigging.
The great prince saw ahead
The copper roofs of Byzantium;
His swan-breasted ships swept
Towards the tall-towered city.

Interference

The Magnusson translation is wonderful, no problems there. It has a really useful introduction, good maps, invaluable family trees and potted biographies of almost everyone mentioned in the text. In addition there are ample footnotes on every page, so that many pages are more note than text. And it’s here the a teeny-tiny problem emerges because at key cruxes of Harald’s biography – his time with the Varangian Guard in Consntantinople, in his wars against Svein Ulfsson, king of Denmark, and Earl Hakon Ivarsson, nomadic chieftain, and in the detail of his final campaign against Harold Godwinsson in England – the notes intrude into the text to give really detailed explanations of the complicated genealogical and political connections between the main characters, and this

  • swamps the text you’re reading ie after two pages of notes on just what Harold Godwinsson promised Duke William of Normandy, it’s difficult to rejoin the narrative in the same frame of mind
  • undermines the text because, unfortunately, it turns out the saga is plain wrong in many of its factual claims

The notes, in places, become a kind of anti-text which is actively warring against the saga, undermining its facts and interpretation. This doesn’t happen in the Family sagas which are much more like, say, the tragedies of Shakespeare in that they use historical figures but are obviously crafted to produce dramatic twists and confrontations. Snorri, also, creates dramatic moments in this tale, but they are continually undermined by the scientific tone of the footnotes. In a nutshell, the first time you read it, skip the notes, just read the narrative for the speed and excitement of the story.

Summary

The story opens when Harald is 15 and fighting alongside his half-brother, King Olaf, at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. Olaf loses and is killed and Harald flees east to Sweden. From there he journeys south-east through Russia, stopping to impress King Jaroslav before carrying on down to Constantinople to join the Varangian Guard, the elite band of mercenaries mostly from Scandinavia who served the emperor directly. He fights for the Byzantines in Greece, Sicily, then in the Holy Land where he makes pilgrimage to the shrines. Back in Constantinople he asks to return home, is refused and thrown in prison, is released by a miracle and takes part in some kind of uprising against the emperor in which he is said to have personally put out the emperor’s eyes. He and his fellow Scands escape across the Black Sea and back upriver to Russia, collect the loot they’d been stashing with King Jaroslav, and return to Norway.

The middle part of the saga details Harald’s numerous confrontations, battles, negotiations, treaties with and double crosses of King Magnus of Denmark (his nephew), his successor King Svein Ulfsson, and the slippery chieftain  Earl Hakon Ivarsson who fights first for one side then for the other then against both. It is a confusing picture made more so by the tangled skein of intermarriages among the royal families of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and the endless squabbles about who promised who which kingdom when they died.

Thus, in around 1038, King Magnus of Norway had made a pact with King Hardacnut of Denmark (son of Cnut the Great who actually ruled England from 1016-1035) that if either of them died childless the other would inherit their realm. Hardacnut died childless in 1042 and so Magnus claimed Denmark. But since  Hardacnut’s father had been king of England, Magnus also claimed the English throne. When Edward the Confessor had himself crowned English king after Hardacnut’s death, Magnus had planned to invade England only to be distracted by war with rebellious chieftains nearer home. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald considered that he’d inherited England along with Denmark. Edward negotiated with his both Harald and William of Normandy throughout the 1050s and managed to keep both at bay. But after his death in January 1066 both William of Normandy and Harald of Denmark considered themselves cheated of the kingdom when Harold Godwinsson got himself crowned, and they both set out to invade and conquer the land they thought rightfully theirs.

And that account not only partly explains the reason for Harald’s invasion, but gives a good flavour of how the fictional or artistic aspect of the saga, the creation of telling vignettes and insightful dialogue, is unfortunately swamped in the great sea of factual prose which is required to explicate these complicated events.

Harald sails Norway with 300 ships and maybe 6,000 men, lands on the Yorkshire coast, wins a battle at Fulford near York and is recovering with his men when the huge army Harold Godwinsson has raised attacks. The slaughter takes place in three terrible waves and leaves a battlefield glutted with corpses and Harald dead, killed by an arrow. Only 20 or so ships suffice to take the survivors back to Norway, and the memory of the slaughter more or less ends Scandinavian ambitions to invade let alone rule England.

In its last few chapters the saga has an obituary of Harald with a 13th century assessment of his strengths and weaknesses.  His old adversary Svein of Denmark gathers forces to invade Norway yet again, but wiser heads prevail to defuse the threat and preserve the peace, and Harald is succeeded by his sons Magnus (d.1069) and Olaf (d.1093) who preside over a long preiod of much-deserved peace.

Related links

The Battle of Stamford bridge, 1870, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Wikimedia Commons)

The Battle of Stamford bridge with Harald getting shot in the neck, 1870, by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

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 Eirik the Red

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða). Eirik’s saga is slightly longer (13 chapters versus 8) and is thought to be the later of the two, though both only reached their final form during the 13th century which saw the great flowering of anonymous Icelandic prose narratives we call the sagas.

The fine detail of who landed where and what they called it is admirably covered in this new and very thorough Penguin edition which contains maps and detailed notes as well as appendices on subjects like Norse boat design, the nature of outlawry and so on.

The overall message of the two sagas to the non-scholar is a) the astonishing adventurousness of the Old Norse/Viking peoples, their willingness to explore further and further afield from their Scandinavian base until their destinations stretched from the  Black Sea in the east to American in the west; b) but that these specific expeditions marked the limit of that urge: Vinland (the name they gave to the fertile land they sighted and settled for a year or two, probably Newfoundland, maybe further south along the northeast coast of America) was settled for a short while, but then abandoned, too far beyond the usual lines of communication, the natives too dangerous and threatening.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Oleif the White raids round Ireland and conquers Dublin. He marries Aud the Deep-Minded, daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose (both of whom feature at the start of the Laxærdal Saga). Their son is Thorstein. When Oleif is killed in battle Aud and Thorstein decamp to the Hebrides. Thorstein rises to become a king of Cithness etc but is then killed by the Scots. Aud makes her getaway to the Orkneys. She marries off her daughter royally before proceeding to Iceland and claiming all the land around Hvamm. One of her crew is Vifil, high born but made a slave in Britain. Aud frees him and gives him land.
2 – Introducing Thorvald who has a son Eirik the Red. They’re involved in killings in Norway and so flee to Iceland. Thorvald dies. Eirik marries and builds a farm at Eiriksstadir (whose ruins can still be seen today). But feuds: his slaves cause a landslide which kills some servant; Filth-Eyjolf kills the slaves; Eirik kills Filth-Eyjolf and more besides. He flees to an offshore island. He is outlawed at the Thorsnes Assembly. He tells his followers he intends to find th eland spotted by Gunnbjorn when blown off course. He sails west to Greenland (985). He names places, staying in Eiriksey Island. The next spring travels round to Eiriksfjord where he settles. All told three years of exploring and building camps. Eirik returns to Iceland and publicises the new place he has christened Greenland.
3 – Vifil (from chapter 1) had two sons. One of them was Thorbjorn who marries and has a daughter, Gudrid. She is fostered by Orm. Einar is a succesful merchant son of a freed slave. He visits Orm with mechandise and sees Gudrid and is smitten. He asks Orm to ask Thorbjorn for Gudrid’s hand. Thorbjorn is predictably cross at receiving a humiliating proposal from a slave’s son. At that year’s autumn feast he surprises his friends by announcing he will sail to the land his friend Eirik told him about. He sells his goods and farm and sets off in a ship with thirty crew. they are storm-beaten and then illness strikes. Unlucky Orm and his wife die. Finally they arrive at the southern tip of Greenland, named Herjolfsnes, and a farmer named Thorkel gives them shelter for the winter.
4 – Thorbjorg the Seeress An unusually long and detailed account of the clothes and rituals practiced by Thorbjorg the Seeress who the locals ask Thorkel to host and ask the future. Afte ra day of preparation she prophecies for everyone, most notably for Gudrid, saying she will marry well, return to Iceland and have many noble descendants (and we know this is written with the hindsight that at least three Icelandic bishops are descended from her). In the spring Thorbjorn sails with his daughter round the coast to Brattahlid where he is greeted by Eirik and given land.
5 – Leif Eiriksson Eirik has two sons including Leif (saga of Greenlanders tells us he has four sons and the psychopath daughter, Freydis). (999) Leif sails to Norway where he serves a while with King Olaf Tryggvasson. He is driven off course by winds and makes land on the Hebrides. He falls in love with a woman, Thorgunna, whom he makes pregnant. Leif is reluctant to abduct her against the wishes of her powerful kin, and so abandons her. Later she follows him to Greenland with her son Thorgils. But for now Leif sails to Norway and becomes a retainer of King Olaf Trygvasson (995-1000). Olaf asks Leif to convert Greenland to Christianity which he’s reluctant to do but sets sail. (1000) Leif lands somewhere rich with wheat and vines. Then encounters a ship wrecked on skerries and takes off all the passengers, then makes land on Greenland, and is known thereafter as Leif the Lucky. He goes to his home farm of Brattahlid and is welcomed by his father Eirik. He preaches the gospel and the new way. His father is reluctant but his mother Thjodhild enthusiastically converts and builds a church (which archaeologists have found and reconstructed). People say they should go explore the land Leif had brielfy seen. Eirik’s other son Thorstein becomes th eleader. He urges Eirik to come with and, although riding down to the ship Eirik has a fall, he goes nonetheless (opposite of Greenland Saga). (1001) But it is an ill-fated expedition, they are washed around by the waves, sight Iceland, see Irish birds, everything except Vinland and end up washed back ashore on Greenland.
6 – The plague This Thorstein whose expedition failed now marries Gudrid. Confusingly, they go to stay with another man named Thorstein and his wife Sigrid and disease strikes. The farmer’s wife Sigrid dies, but not before she’s had a vision of the dead lined up outside. And Thorstein Eiriksson dies. Then sits up and asks to speak to his wife, and delivers a Christian homily, saying Greenlanders must stop pagan burial practices and bury bodies in a churchyard – you can hear the true sermony voice of medieval Christianity. All the bodies are buried in the church in Eiriksfjord. Then Gudrid’s father Thorbjorn dies too, leaving her all his money.
7 – Thorfin Karlsefni comes from good family ultimately going back to Aud. With two ships they sail from Iceland to Greenland making land at Brattahlid, and Eirik generously offers to put them up. After a spell Karlsefni asks for Gudrid’s hand in marriage. The Yule feast becomes a wedding feast.
8 – (1005) Snorri and Karlsefni, Bjarni and Thorhall, Thorvald and Thorhall set sail for Vinland in three ships with 140 men. A detailed description of the  lands they see and name until they moor in a fjord (Straumsfjord) for the winter. But, fascinatingly, they nearly all starve, unprepared and unable to live off the land. Thorhall goes mad and is found after three days talking to himself. They find a beached whale and cook it and are all sick and throw themselves on God’s mercy and the weather improves and in the pring there is game, fish and birds eggs.
9 – They disagree how to proceed. Thorhall takes nine men and sails north, after reciting some pagan poems. They are washed off-course as far as Ireland where they are caught and enslaved.
10 – The rest head south to a tidal pool which is teeming with fish, the land with game and self-seeded wheat. It is paradise. After a while nine coracles approach, the short threatening natives get out and observe them, then go their way.
11 – A fleet of natives returns and the Icelanders trade with them until a bull bellowing scares them off. They return a few weeks later in warlike mood and there is a fight. Karlsefni and his men turn and run but Freydis, an illegitimate daughter of Eirik, picks up the sword of one of the dead and turns on the natives and, extracting a breast from her shift, beats it with the flat of the sword. This frightens the natives so much that they turn and flee (!) but Karlsefni and Snorri realise the natives make the land uninhabitable. They pack up and sail back north, past a headland packed with deer where the main party camp and Karlsefni sails north and wet, vainly searching for Thorhall.
12 – A one-legged creature emerges from the woods and fires an arrow which hits Thorvald and kills him. They pursue him north catching sight of the Land of the One-Legged (! presumably a longstanding fantasy land). They spend their third winter in Straumsfjord, and Karlsefni’s son Snorri is born. They sail back north past Markland where they capture some natives and convert them to Christianity, before arriving back in Greenland with Eirik.
13 – The sea of worms Bjarni Grimolfsson and his crew are borne past the Greenland Straits and into the Sea of Worms. Worms infest the ship’s timbers and everyone behaves as if that’s it for the ship. They draw lots to see who will survive in the ship’s boat. Bjarni is goaded by a young sailor until he gives up his place for him. ‘People say that Bjrani died there in the Sea of Worms, aboard the ship.’
14 – The next summer Karsefni sails for Iceland with his wife Gudrid. The last sentences in the saga describe how three of Karlsefni and Gudrid’s great grandchildren are notable Icelandic bishops. Do these sagas exist solely because the Christian bishops, or their descendants, commissioned these stories about their ancestors to be written down?

A one-legged creature? A sea of worms? These sound like later, medieval accretions to the basic story.

Related links

Other sagas

The Saga of the Greenlanders

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða).

To be honest, neither of them seem to me to have much literary merit and to be mainly of historical interest (which is considerable). The revelation for me is that there wasn’t one big voyage but quite a few trips stretched over a number of years and by a cast of people each discovering different parts and having different adventures. Thus there isn’t the continuity of characterisation you get in even the fairly short Þattrs.

Scholars take this patchiness to prove them closer to the original oral tradition, with less literary ‘shaping’ of the narrative than we see in most other sagas. That said, the anecdotes in Grœnlendinga saga are threaded together by being associated with successive children of Eirik the Red; and an over-pattern of sorts emerges in the contrast between Freydis the psychopath and Gudrun the saint, though only really in the last chapter.

Synopsis

1 – A man named Bjarni Herjolfsson arrives one summer in Iceland to find his father has emigrated to Greenland along with Eirik the Red, so he sets off to follow him. Three days from Iceland they lose their way. Over the weeks he and his crew spot three distinct lands but, since none of them tally with the description of Greenland he doesn’t go ashore. Eventually the wind does blow them back to Greenland where they land and find his father’s farm, settling there. People hear of his travels and criticise him for lack of curiosity in not landing anywhere.
2 – Leif the son of the outlaw Eirik the Red, is interested in Bjarni’s discoveries, buys a ship from him, hires a crew and tries to get Eirik to lead the expedition but Eirik says he is too old. They discover the same lands as Bjarni but in reverse order and name them: Helluland (meaning Stone-slab land), Markland (meaning Wood land) and a much more fertile place they decide to stay for the winter: cattle could graze here all year round, the sun doesn’t disappear in winter, the salmon are huge etc. They build a base and explore.
3 – Leif’s foster-father Tyrkir goes a bit further and finds grapes and grapevines. (Much ink has been spilt speculating whether these really were grapes (unlikely) or a word the Norse applied to some other kind of fruit (gooseberries?). Leif names the place Vinland meaning Wineland and the name was widely enough known to be recorded by the 11th century historian Adam of Bremen.) In the spring Leif sails back to Greenland laden with timber and grapes (?). As he rounds the Greenland coast he comes across a shipwrecked boat and saves the entire crew and stock, from which he is nicknamed Leif the Lucky. (Ironically the captain and most of the rescued crew then die of illness.)
4 – Thorvald Eiriksson, Leif’s brother, thinks that Vinland was not explored enough. He takes Leif’s ship, sails across the sea, finds Leif’s camp and stays the winter surviving on fish. In the spring the explore further west, finding one grain cover but nothing else human. Next summer Thorvald explores to the east and north, discovering some boats made of skin and people hiding under them, who they proceed to murder (!) The natives, called Skraelings by the Norsemen, return and attack en masse. The Vikings sail off in a defended boat but Thorvald is fatally wounded, dies and is buried in Vinland. His crew return to Greenland.
5 – Thorstein Eriksson goes to Vinland to recover the body of his brother, in the same well-travelled ship, taking his wife Gudrid. The expedition never reaches Vinland, after sailing all summer ends up back at the coast of Greenland, where Thorstein falls ill and dies. Supernatural events occur: The wife of their host Thorstein the Black dies but sits up and talks. Then dead Thorstein speaks out of his dead body and tells the fortune of his wife Gudrid, predicting a long and prosperous life for her back in Iceland, and a pilgrimage to Rome.
6 – A ship arrives in Greenland from Norway commanded by Thorfinn Karlsefni, a rich man. He falls in love with Gudrid and they marry (her third marriage) and he’s encouraged to lead an expedition to Vinland. The expedition arrives in Leif’s and Thorvald’s old camp and stays there for the winter. Next summer a group of natives or Skraelings come visiting, carrying skins for trade. Karlsefni forbids his men to trade weapons, instead selling them dairy products. —Gudrid gives birth to a boy, Snorri, the first European born in North America.— The second winter the Skraelings come again to trade but this time one of Karlsefni’s men kills a Skraeling as he reaches for Norse weapons. Supernatural events occur: As she waited, Gudrid had seen a strange woman approach with enormous eyes who said she was Gudrid; as the Skraeling was killed the spirit woman disappeared!— The Skraelings return to attack and the Norsemen manage to fight them off. Karlsefni stays the rest of the winter and returns to Greenland in the spring.
7 – Two brothers arrive from Iceland, Helgi and Finnbogi. Freydis Eiriksdottir, the daughter of Eirik, suggests they all travel to Vinland and share the profits fifty-fifty. They agree to have only 30 men on each ship but Freydis double crosses her partners immediately by taking along 5 extra men. The brothers arrive slightly earlier in Vinland and move into Leif’s house but when she arrives, Freydis orders them to leave. Games which are mean to unify the little colony just lead to further disputes. One morning Freydis wakes Finnbogi to talk to him. Returning to her bed she tells her husband, Thorvard, the brothers abused and beat her and says she’ll divorce him unless he avenges her. Thorvard leads his men in tying up all the men from the other camp while they are still sleeping. Freydis has each man killed on the spot until only the five women remain who her crew are reluctant to kill. She asks for an axe and kills them all. She is greatest psychopath in all the sagas I’ve read. Freydis threatens her crew with death if anyone tells these deeds. They load the ships with goods and sail back to Greenland, telling everyone the brothers chose to stay in Vinland.
8 – Eventually Leif learns the truth and is horrified but doesn’t take it upon himself to punish her crimes. Meanwhile the saga returns to Gudrid and Karlsefni who make land in Norway, trade, then return to settle in north Iceland. When Karlsefni dies their son Snorri takes over running the farm while Gudrid goes on pilgrimage to Rome and returns to become a nun and anchoress. Their descendants include notable bishops of Iceland.

The murderess balances the holy woman – but both are treated with that same flat affect so characteristic of the sagas, so heartless and yet compelling. There is no false sentiment. There is no sentiment at all.

Related links

Norse sailors spotting land

Norse sailors spotting land

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

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