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

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

Eyrbyggja Saga 2

Could be called Snorri’s saga, as Snorri the Priest is born in chapter 12, dies in the last chapter (65) and dominates most of the action in between, if only as peacemaker between the various gangs which come to inhabit the Snæfelsness peninsula in north-west Iceland where it is set. He inhabits a larger proportion of the text than Egil or Njal do of their sagas.

Eyrbyggja as a late, carefully-crafted text

Eyrbyggja uses material from other sagas: chapters  12 and 13 give a brisk summary of the main plot of Gislis saga. In chapter 47 Snorri recounts the story of Gunnar’s last stand from Njal’s saga. The opening chapters about Ketil Flat-Nose seems to come from, or certainly parallel, the opening chapters of Laxdæla saga which also describe the reasons for Ketil leaving Norway for Iceland, and also echo the account in the Landnamabok. Towards the end the text refers overtly to Grettis saga and Bandamanna saga and Heidarviga saga and chapter 24 gives a summary of part of Eirik’s saga. At key moments in the Thorbrandssons versus Thorlakssons sections, the fights at Alftafjord and Vigra Fjord, the author quotes a long poem on the subject, the Lay of the Raven by Thormod Trefilsson, as well as poems supposedly created by the protagonists. Right at the end he quotes Gudny Bodvar’s-daughter as an eyewitness to the bones of Snorri, Bork the Stout and Thordis Sur’s-daughter being dug up and transferred to the new church at Tongue.

Eyrbyggja definitely feels late – it feels as if the author had good written accounts of numerous sagas, long poems and short verses which had been handed down, along with factual accounts of key events and legends and ghost stories, all of which he used carefully to amplify and enrich his narrative. This strength is also its weakness as it lacks the clarity of narrative of Egils saga or Njals saga and suffers, especially in the final third, from feeling like an anthology of interesting legends and anecdotes. Still, for this very reason, its variety of tone and incident, and also because this is a very fluent and readable translation by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, complete with good map and useful notes, I’d be tempted to recommend this as a first saga for the beginner.

Synopsis

The first settlers from Norway
1 – Ketil Flat-Nose is a great chieftain in Norway and married to Yngvild. King Harald Fair-Hair forces Ketil to combat exiles from Norway who are ravaging the coast. Ketil packs wife and sons and sails to the Hebrides where he crushes the Vikings and makes peace with the local chieftains with no intention of handing them over to Harald who promptly confiscates all Ketil’s property in Norway. Ketil marries his daughter to the most powerful chieftain in Britain, Olaf the White.
2 – Ketil’s son Bjorn had stayed on in Norway, goes south to his father’s estates and expels the king’s men. In response Harald outlaws Bjorn and sends men to kill him. Tipped off, Bjorn sails south along the coast to a place named Mostur Island and takes refuge with Hrolf.
3 – Hrolf is a friend of Thor, in charge of Thor’s temple and has an impressive beard so is known as Thorolf Mostur-Beard. Thorolf sends Bjorn with his son Hallstein across the sea. When Harald learns Thorolf has been sheltering the outlaw Ketil’s son, he outlaws him.
4 – Thorolf consults his friend Thor who advises him to go to Iceland. He takes Thor’s temple, timbers and some earth. On sighting Iceland he throws overboard the high-seat pillars and vows to build where they land. They sail into a broad fjord which he names Breida Fjord. The pillars land at a promontory which he calls Thorsnes. Thorolf builds a farm Hofstad and a new temple. On the ness is a mountain which Thorolf declares so sacred that no man can look at it without washing, and he names Helga Fell. He institutes the Thors Ness assembly and the land is so holy no-one is allowed to poo there but must go out to an island just offshore known as Dritsker.
5 – When Bjorn rendevous with his family in the Hebrides, his father Ketil has died. He discovers his mother and brother have converted to Christianity and becomes alienated from them. They call him Bjorn the Easterner.
6 – After two years in the Hebrides Bjorn and his friend Hallstein Thorolfsson sail to Iceland, to Breidafjord where they settle and build farms.

The second generation
7 – Other settlers arrive: Geirrod builds  his home at Eyr, along with Ulfar the Champion and Finngeir. Vestar has a son Asgeir. Bjorn the Easterner dies, succeeded by son 1 Kjallak the Old who marries Astrid and has Thorgrim the Priest, Gerd and Helga – their descendants are many and known as the Kjalleklings; and son 2 Ottar marries Gro, has Bjord father of Vigfus and Osvif the Wise, father of Gudrun the ill-fated heroine of Laxdala saga. In old age Thorolf Mostur-Bear marries Unn and has a son Thorstein, nicknamed Cod-Biter. Hallstein, Bjorn’s sailing companion, has a son Thorstein, fostered by Thorolf and nicknamed Thorstein Surt.
8 – Geirrid sister of Geirrod of Eyr comes to Iceland and Geirrod grants her land. She has a son who grows up to be Thorolf Bjornsson a great Viking. He thinks the land his mother has too small and challenges Ulfar the Champion to a duel and kills him not before Ulfar wounds his leg so that he walks with a limp and is known as Thorolf Twist-Foot. Thorolf has a son, Arnkel (who will squabble with Snorri), and a daughter Geirrid who marries another Thorolf and has Thorarin the Black (who will kill Thorbjorn and be exiled).
9 – Thorolf the founder dies and is succeeded by his son Thorstein Cod-Biter. The Kjalleklings (descended from Bjorn the Easterner) are arrogant. At the Thors Ness assembly Thorgim Kjallaksson announces they will poo where they want and no longer go to Dritsker. Thorstein Cod-Biter, defending his father’s holy soil, musters his men and attacks the Kjalleklings driving them down to the beach where there is a big pitched battle with some deaths.
10 – Thord Gellir, at that time leading chieftain of Breidafjord, is brought in to make a settlement. He moves the assembly to a new location and makes Thorgim half responsible for maintaining the temple, from which point he is known as Thorgrim the Priest.
11 – Thorstein Cod-Biter dies. He had a son Bork the Stout then, aged 25, another baby he calls Thorgrim and dedicates to Thor to become a priest. That autumn shepherds see the north side of Helga Fell open revealing fires and the sounds of feasting and the names of Thorstein and comrades. The next day they learn Thorstein was drowned on a fishing expedition to Hoskuld Island.

Overlap with Gisli’s saga
12 – Thorgrim marries Thordis Sur-daughter of Dyrafjord and goes to live with his brothers-in-law Gisli and Thorkel. Thorgrim kills Vestein Vesteinsson at a festival and, the following year, aged 25 like his father, Thorgrim is killed by his brother-in-law Gisli at an autumn feast. A few days later Thorgrim’s widow Thordis gives birth to a son named Thorgrim after his father – Thorgrim Thorgrimsson. She marries her brother-in-law Bork the Stout and goes to live in Helgafell. Little Thorgrim is fostered out to Thorbrand of Alftafjord where he is so troublesome he acquires the nickname Snorri, eventually to become the famous Snorri the Priest. Thorbrand has five sons and these Thorbrandssons are blood brothers to Snorri. The fearsome Viking Thorolf Twist-foot has a son Arnkel. Thorgim Kjallakson who started the fight at Thors Ness has three sons: Brand, Arngrim who is so mean he is nicknamed Styr, and Vermund the Slender. Asgeir of Eyr has a son Thorlak who marries Thurid and has sons Steinthor, Bergthor, Thormod, Thord Blig (the Thorlakssons who are going to be involved in feuds) and daughter Helga.
13 – When he’s 14 Snorri travels to Norway funded by his uncle Bork. The following year he returns and there is much joking that his colleague wears elaborate clothes and armour, whereas Snorri rides a plain mare in a black cloak. One day 12 armed men walk into the hall at Helgafell led by Bork’s kinsman, Eyjolf the Grey (son of Thord Gellir, biggest chieftain in the area who made the peace in chapter 10) who announces his crew have just killed Gisli the outlaw. This is as Bork wanted because Gisli killed his brother Thorgrim. But it is bad news for Bork’s wife Thordis as Gisli was her brother. As she goes to serve them, Thordis seizes Eyjolf’s sword and tries to stab him, only succeeding in gashing his thigh. Bork pushes her and Eyjolf would attack her but Snorri steps in to protect her. Bork gives Eyjolf self-judgement and gives him ample compensation, who rides off feeling very dissatisfied with all his hard work for Bork. This widens the gap between Snorri and his uncle and foster-father Bork.

Snorri’s career
14 – Snorri kicks Bork out of Helgafell which rightfully belongs to him. He surprises Bork by being able to pay the price Bork names. Thordis divorces Bork for hitting her and takes half his belongings so Bork ends up with very little.
15 – Snorri’s farm at Helgafell flourishes and he becomes the priest of Thor’s temple. A widow called Katla lived at Holt, west of Mavahlid with her son Odd, a trouble-maker. Thorbjorn the Stout’s son Gunnlaug often goes to study witchcraft with Geirrid Thorolf’s-daughter. He stops in to chat to Katla and she insinuates that he makes love to Geirrid and that she fancies him. As he’s accompanied by Odd on these journeys he often stops off at Mavahlid and Katla always invites him in and he always refuses.
16 – On one of these visits Geirrid warns Gunnlaug not to go home. When he and Odd reach Holt, Katla invites him in and he refuses as usual. The next morning Gunnlaug is found almost dead covered in piercing deep scratches. He has been ridden by a night witch. Snorri and Gunnlaug’s father Thorbjorn ride over to Mavahlid and serve a summons on Geirrid for being a witch. But at the next assembly a lot of her kin support her and the case is rejected.
17 – At the same assembly a big fight breaks out, one side led by Thorgrim Kjallakson over the dowry of Illugi the Black’s wife. Men are killed before Snorri manages to separate the sides and broker a peace for which Illugi is grateful.
18 – Thorbjorn the Stout’s prize horses go missing. A man with second-sight called Spa-Gils strongly implies it was Thorarin the Black, son of Geiridd from Mavahlid. Thorbjorn rides there with a posse. Thorbjorn calls a door court and starts to accuse Thorarin. In a typical moment, it is goading by his mother calling him a coward which prompts Thorarin to leap forward attacking and a fight starts, until the women intervene and Thorbjorn and his men ride away. In the frenzy Thorarin’s wife Aud’s hand is cut off. He rides to where Thorbjorn’s men are recovering and hears them joking about it which drives him wild and he leaps forward and splits Thorbjorn’s skull in half. A fierce battle ensues until Thorbjorn’s men run away. (Odd is protected by the magic tunic his mother has given him.)
19 – Thorarin rides to see Vermund who advises they go see Arnkel. They know Snorri will prepare a case on behalf of Thorbjorn who was married to his half-sister.
20 – Geirrid of Mavahlid says it was Odd Katlason who cut off Aud’s hand. Thorarin and Arnkel ride to Holt: there is a strange folk tale scene where the men search the house for Odd three times but each time Katla bewitches them so they can’t see him. Only when Geirrid arrives do they put a bag over Katla’s head thus stymying her magic and find Odd. They hang him and stone her to death.
21- Arnkel advises Thorarin to go abroad. Message is sent to Bjorn the captain to ready his boat.
22 – On the Summons Days Snorri assembles a big force and rides to Alftafjord to summons the killers for manslaughter. Then he rides to the coast, seizes the Norwegian captain and burns the boat Thorarin was going to flee in. Whereupon Arnkel and Vermund and Thorarin row north across Breidafjord and buy another boat, and Thorarin and Vermund sail away. Snorri attends the assembly and successfully gets Thorarin and all his crew sentenced to outlawry, then confiscates all their property.

23 – Vigfus has a layabout nephew called Bjorn. At a big annual sorting of the sheep Bjorn accuses Snorri’ shepherd Helgi of stealing sheep and attacks him, Snorri’s uncle Mar Hallvardson goes to his defence and injures Bjorn. Vigfus takes the case to the Thor’s Ness assembly, but Snorri counter-charges Bjorn who is found guilty of starting.
24 – At the same assembly Eirik the Red is accused of a killing. His friends the Thorbrandssons gather supporters and Styr asks Snorri not to join the attack on Eirik after the assembly in exchange for his support any other time. They see Eirik off to a boat and he sets sail: it’s on this expedition that he discovers Greenland, in 986.
25 – The Swedish Berserks Vermund and Thorarin the Black arrive in Norway and go serve Earl Hakon the Good. With him are two Swedish berserks. The next year Vermund asks if he can bring them back to Iceland though Hakon warns him against. So he brings them back to Iceland where they soon start arguing. Vermund holds a feast for his brother Styr, Arnkel and other men of Eyr. He tries to persuade first Arnkel, then Styr to take the berserks and at first they get on well.
26 – Vigfus commissions one of his slaves, Svart, to kill Snorri. He breaks a hole in the ceiling of the porch and waits, but he thrusts down with his halberd just too late, misses Snorri and wounds Mar. Svart jumps to the ground but slips and is caught. Svart confesses it was Vigfus and Snorri sets off with six men, surprises Vigfus making charcoal in the woods and kill him. His slaves tell his widow who tries to raise support from Arnkel who refuses, saying it is the Kjallakings and Styr’s business.
27 – Vigfus’s widow Thorgerd goes to Styr asking for help. Styr points out the pledge he made to Snorri in exchange for Snorri not attacking Eirik. So, no help. She goes see Vermund who says, No help. She goes see Steinthor who says I’m too young. Exasperated she goes back to Vermund who says chop off Vigfus’s head and take it in a bag to Arnkel. Which she does and this shames and horrifies him into agreeing to launch a case against Snorri in the spring. But Snorri vigorously launches a counter action for attempted manslaughter and for the wounding of Mar, claiming Vigfus was lawfully killed. Moderators step in and Snorri agrees terms: he pays a large fine and Mar is exiled for three years.
28 – The end of the Swedish berserks One of them asks Styr for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Not keen, Styr goes consult Snorri and they go atop Helgafell: ‘plans made there have never been known to fail’. Snorri advises Styr to set the berserks two massive tasks, build a dyke and a sauna. When they enter the sauna Styr kills them. Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis, binding them together.

29 – Thorodd Tribute-trader and Bjorn Introducing Thorodd who goes a sailing trip to Ireland. Earl Sigurd of Orkney has just made a raid demanding tribute from the Isle of Man but is shipwrecked. Thorodd sailing by hears them shouting from the shore and, reluctantly sells them his two boat in exchange for the tribute. So people call him Thorodd Tribute-Trader. Back in Ireland he stays with Snorri at Helgafell and marries his sister Thurid, widow of Thorbjorn who Thorarin the Black killed after the dispute about horses (chapter 18) and they go live in the farm at Frodriver. Soon Bjorn Asbrandsson starts calling on her and rumours start. Thorodd unhappy. One day, going home, Bjorn is attacked by Thorodd and servants – who he wounds – and the two sons of Thorir Wood-leg (the Thorissons), who he kills. Thorodd asks Snorri to mount a case against Bjorn for killing the Thorissons. Bjorn is outlawed and banished for three years. Bjorn sails to Norway, then Denmark, then on to join the legendary Jomsvikings.

Incidents concerning Thorolf Twist-foot, his feuds and ghost
30 – Thorolf Twist-Foot is an old mean man who doesn’t get on with his son Arnkel. Thorolf gets Ulfar’s advice about the weather and haymaking but pays him back badly by getting his men to fetch in Ulfar’s hay as well. Ulfar rushes out to the fields furious, but withdraws in face of Thorolf’s threats and goes to see his son Arnkel for compensation. Thorolf refuses to listen to Arnkel, so he pays Ulfar the compensation then kills seven of Thorolf’s oxen and claims that’s his hay-price returned. Thorolf is livid.
31 – About Christmastime Thorolf has a feast, gets his servants drunk, and tells them to go burn Ulfar’s farm. Over at Bolstad Arnkel sees the fire, rushes over with men to put it out, and seizes his father’s slaves and hangs them in the morning. Ulfar wisely makes over all his property to Arnkel, thus gaining legal support against threats from Thorolf. But this angers the Thorbrandssons, whose freedman Ulfar was and who think the property should revert to them. Thorolf rides to visit Snorri and offers him ownership of the woods on Krakaness if he will take up the case against Arnkel for killing Thorolf’s slaves. Driven by need for the woods, Snorri accepts and prosecutes Arnkel who points out he prevented a burning. Mediators step in and award Snorri 12 ounces of silver per slave ie the minimum which he gives to Thorolf who abuses him. Thus Thorolf is angry, Snorri is angry and Arnkel is angry.
32 – Ulfar’s brother Orlyg dies and Ulfar quickly gets Arnkel to come take joint protection of his property. The Thorbrandssons are cross again, reckoning their freedman’s property should be theirs and go see Snorri who refuses to take up the case against Arnkel, seeing as how his previous case wasn’t a particular success. In the autumn Arnkel gives a feast. Ulfar attends. Thorolf bribes his friend Spa-Gils who needs the money to lie in wait and murder Ulfar, which he does then runs off. Arnkel sees what’s happened and sends men after Spa-Gils. Thorolf sees Spa-Gils running and sends men to the Thorbrandssons so they can get to Ulfar’s property and claim it. Arnkel’s men catch and kill Spa-Gils. Arnkel and his men are at Ulfar’s property before the Thorbrandssons arrive so they fail to claim it again!
33 – Thorolf Twist-foot becomes angry that Snorri is using up too much of the wood and rides to confront him. Snorri calls witnesses to confirm Thorolf giving it to him and Thorolf rides on to his son Arnkel at Bolstad, but Arnkel refuses to get embroiled in another law case with Snorri so Thorolf rides home to Hvamm livid, sits in his high chair and in the morning his staff find him dead. Arnkel knocks a hole in the wall behind Thorolf, has him pulled backwards and his body placed on a sledge pulled by oxen up to a burial place where they build a cairn over the body.
34 – Thorolf’s ghost haunts the valley: the oxen which hauled his body are ridden to death by demons; every animal that goes near his grave goes out of its mind; the ghost kills shepherd and sheep; any bird alighting on Thorolf’s cairn drops dead. The ghost haunts vigorously and drives his widow out of her mind till she dies. First the farm at Hvamm is abandoned, then the whole valley. Arnkel gets recruits, loads Thorolf’s corpse onto a sled and drags it miles away to Ulfarsfell Ridge where they rebury it in Twist-Foot’s Knoll.
35 – Arnkel inherits his father’s property & rights and gets just as cross as his father with Snorri for using Krakaness woods. He waits till Snorri’s friend Hauk is supervising some slaves loading timber onto pack horses, then attacks. Hauk lunges at him but Arnkel deflects with his shield and spears Hauk, takes the horses and wood. Next spring Snorri brings a case against Arnkel for murder but Arnkel argues that Haul attacked him and the case is defeated. Simmering tension.
36 – A man called Thorleif is an outlaw. He comes to Snorri asking for sanctuary; Snorri rejects him but after a long talk. Then Thorleif goes to Bolstad to ask sanctuary of Arnkel and while they’re talking Thorleif takes up Arnkel’s adze and tries to kill him but Arnkel is too fast and kills him. Word gets about that Snorri commissioned him.
37 – Snorri holds a big Winter feast. He gives gifts to the guests. As the Thorbrandssons leave he gives Thorleif Kimbi a fine axe and they make an agreement to kill Arnkel. One night before Christmas Arnkel is working with some of  his men at haystacks. Snorri is tipped off and joins with the Thorbrandssons, 15 in all, to attack. Arnkel holds off a long time but is finally killed.

Arnkel was mourned by everyone, for of all men in pagan times he was the most gifted. He was remarkably shrewd in judgement, good-tempered, kind-hearted, brave, honest and moderate. He came out on top in every lawsuit, no matter with whom he had to deal, which explains why people were so envious of him.

38 – Arnkel’s heirs are all women who don’t pursue the case very well. Only Thorleif Kimbi is outlawed.

A new dispute – between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons aka the men of Eyr and the men of Breidavik
39 – Thorleif takes ship to Norway. They are joined at the last minute by a stranger who turns out to be Arnbjorn Asbrandsson, going to look for his brother Bjorn (the one who was exiled and went off to join the Jomsvikings in chapter 29). After landfall in Norway it’s Thorleif’s turn to make porridge but Arnbjorn is still making his so after some argument Thorleif grabs the pot, spills Arnbjorn’s porridge out and walks away but Arnbjorn hits him on the neck with the ladle which was still very hot and marks him. Arnbjorn saild south to find his brother.
40 – After two years exile Thorleif Kimbi returns to Iceland pleased with himself. The same summer Arnbjorn returns with his brother, now known as Bjorn Breidavik-Champion. Together they are known as the Men of Breidavik. Arnbjorn settles at Hakki in Hraunhaven on the south side of the Snæfelsness peninsula. At a big gathering of farmers Bjorn bumps into Thurid, the housewife of Frodriver, over whose affair he was exiled. Bjorn resumes seeing Thurid. An upset Thorodd pays Thorgrima Witch-Face to cause a blizzard. Bjorn is lost crawls into a cave and only just survives three days cooped in the cave.
41 – Fighting between Thorlakssons and Thorbrandssons That spring at the Thornes Assembly Thorleif Kimbi (one of Thorbrand’s five sons, the Thorbrandssons) makes a marriage offer for Helga Thorlak’s-daughter, sister of Steinthor (Thormod, Bergthor, and Thord Blig, the sons of Thorlak, the Thorlakssons). He is rudely rejected by Steinthor and Thord. Next morning the Thorlakssons are walking by as the Thorbrandssons are playing the turf game. A great chunk of sandy turf hits Thord Blig on the neck and he turns to see all the Thorbrandssons laughing. Both sides draw swords and a fight starts. Eventually Steinthor and Snorri are brought in to make peace.
42 – The Thorbrandssons try to kill Arnbjorn That summer a ship puts in at Hraunhaven on the south of the peninsula. Snorri has business with it and rides south. He is joined by the Thorbrandssons, one of whom is Thorleif Kimbi who was humiliated by Arnbjorn who now lives at Hakki near Hraunhaven. They peel off from Snorri and attack Arnbjorn’s farm, climbing onto the roof but he fights them off, until Snorri returns and tells them to stop which, reluctantly they do. The Men of Breidavik arrive and both gangs are in the market at Hraunhaven in a very uneasy peace.
43 – Egil’s failed assassination attempt The Thorbrandssons tell their slave he will be freed if he sneaks into the autumn games and kills one of the Breidavik men, either Bjorn or Arnbjorn or Thord. People say Snorri advised Egil to hide in the hills until the pass was full of smoke of evening meals then sneak down and kill one. Egil does just that but as he enters the hut where Bjorn and Thord are making dinner he trips and they catch him. They extract the full story of his assassination mission before witnesses then kill him. (The strange incident of the talking head.) It is the custom to pay recompense to the owner of a murdered slave. Steinthor gathers a vast posse of nearly a hundred to ride to give payment. When he learns from spies that Snorri is sitting doing nothing Steinthor decides to reduce the party so as not to provoke anyone. Bjorn tells him he’ll regret it.
44 – The Battle of Alfta Fjord Snorri quickly musters his supporters and takes them to Karsstad telling everyone to behave. Stainthor rides up to the door, dismounts, nails a pich with 12oz of silver to the door, calls witnesses that he has paid the debt. As usual, it’s a woman taunting the men inside who make them furious and Thorleif Kimbi comes rushing out followed by the other hotheads and they start fighting. However Snorri comes out and gets them all to stop and promises Steinthor safe passage. However, he then discovers his 12 year-old son Thorodd has been injured by the very man he’s given safe passage and the red mist descends: they chase after the Thorlakssons and there’s a big fight up a scree called Geirvör. Eventually Aslak of Langadale and Illugi the Strong and Vermund the Slender and all their men come between them and stop the fighting. Snorri reaches out his hand to shake Steinthor’s who abruptly hacks at it with a sword, though the sword hits a gold arm-ring. Everyone pleads with Steinthor to make peace and eventually he does, a ceasefire till all sides get home. Some say Snorri could see the Men of Breidavik riding along Ulfarsfell as reinforcements to the Thorlakssons and that was why Snorri was keen to peacemake.
45 – The Battle of Vigra Fjord That winter Steinthor of Eyr with seven companions is loosing a boat in ice-bound Vigra Fjord when they see six man approaching, their enemies the Thorbrandssons. The Thorbrandssons climb a rock surrounded by massive shards of ice while Steinthor and his posse attack. After fierce fighting they lay all the Thorbrandssons low, only Freystein Bofi is dead (who he? ) but all the others badly injured and Thorleif Kimbi’s leg is chopped off. Snorri, alerted by his farmers, arrives and carries them all back to Helgafell and nurses them back to health. Thorleif Kimbi walks with a wooden leg the rest of his days.
46 – In the spring a lot of their neighbours work hard at the Thors Ness Assembly to make a settlement: elaborate pairings of injuries and killings make both sides about equal, and they shake on the deal, and the peace lasts while Steinthor and Snorri lived.
47 – That summer Thorodd the Tribute-Trader hosts Snorri to a feast and asks him to sort out the ongoing shame of Bjorn visiting his wife, Thurid, Snorri’s sister. Snorri decides they’ll attack and kill him and they ride to Kamb. Interestingly, Snorri uses the example of Gunnar’s last stand, in chapter 77 of Njal’s Saga, as an example of how one man can fight off an attacking crew. Daringly, Bjorn walks straight up to Snorri and puts his shearing knife to his heart and they discuss the issue. In a nutshell, Bjorn promises to stop bothering Thurid. Snorri and gang leave. Bjorn packs his belongings and takes ship at Hraunhaven. Nothing is heard of him for a long time, until the mysterious penultimate chapter 64, in fact.

Peace – the end of the Thorlakssons versus Thorbrandssons feud
48 – Snorri Thorbrandsson and his brother Thorleif Kimbi sail to Greenland where Thorleif lives to a ripe old age and Snorri voyages on to Vinland where he dies like a man fighting the Skrælings. Thorodd Thorbrandsson takes over the farm at Alftafjord and lives in peace.
49 – Christianity is brought to Iceland by Gizur the White and his son-in-law Hjalti. This is very briefly described, as if the author knew that other, fuller accounts existed (eg the five chapters in Njal’s saga). Snorri the Priest does more than anything to convert the Western fjords and it may be for this reason that the Christian author makes him the hero of the saga.

The next six chapters are a respite from fighting, telling the story of the haunting of Thorgunna and Thorodd
50 – Thorgunna arrives in a ship from Dublin, she being from the Hebrides. She is big-boned and stout and has a trunk full of treasures such as English sheets and hangings. Thurid of Frodriver (wife of Thorodd the Tribute-Trader and sister of Snorri) is madly jealous and invites her to stay though Thorgunna insists on working for her keep and angers Thurid by refusing to part with her wondrous belongings.
51 – Thorgunna joins in with raking the hay when there is a sudden shower and when it clears they see it was of blood. She takes to her bed dying and makes Thorodd promise to burn all her bedding. (In evidence of the lateness of composition Thorgunna asks to be buried at Skalholt which only develops into a centre of Christian learning and holiness in the 11th and 12th centuries). Thorgunna’s body is buried and Thorodd builds a fire to burn the bedding but Thurid begs him to keep it and he acquiesces. They carry the coffin a long way to Skalholt over rain-sodden moors in sleet, stopping at a farm named Nether Ness where the farmer gives them shelter but no food. In the middle of the night they hear noises and find Thorgunna stark naked making food in the kitchen. She brings it into the living room at which the farmer hastily welcomes then and Thorgunna walks out and vanishes. They eat the food she’s prepared and are fine.
52 – Back at the farm at Frodriver, once the coffin-bearers have returned, the household sees a weird half moon appearing on the wall. Thorir Wood-Leg says it is a fatal moon.
53 – Something starts haunting. It kills a shepherd. When Thorir Wood-Leg goes to the privy the shepherd’s ghost blocks his way and throws him hard against the door so that he sickens and dies. Now the two of them haunt. Soon farm hands start dying one after another. Thorodd goes fishing with five men. A ghostly seal appears, head first, emerging out of the floorboards at Frodriver, no matter what people do to it.
54 – Thorodd and servants put out to sea and are all drowned. When news arrives at Frodriver Thurid and Kjartan hold a funeral feast. At the height of the feast Thorodd and his men walk in drenched, dripping seawater.

Everyone welcomed Thorodd and his men, and thought this a happy omen because in those days it was believed that drowned people had been well-received by the sea-goddess, Ran, if they came to their own funeral feast. At that time a good many heathen beliefs still prevailed, though people were baptised and supposed to be Christians.

Thorodd and his men go sit by the fire. They do this every night till the fire burns low, then leave. After some days the guests all leave but Thorodd and his men still come and Thorir Wood-Leg now appears, along with the five servants who are buried, and they are all covered in mud and earth, which they start throwing at the drowned ghosts. Kjartan has the idea of building a long fire in the all and a smaller one in the household room, and the ghosts take the long fire and the household take the small one and this goes on all winter. An ox-tail is fond wagging in the fish pile which skedaddles away and all the fish are revealed to have been eaten, then Thorir Wood-Leg’s widow, Thorgrima Witch-Face, dies and another round of illness decimates the farm: six more people die and the rest run away.
55 – Not before time Kjartan goes to see his uncle Snorri who happens to have a priest staying with him. On Snorri’s advice they return to Frodriver on Candlemas, burn all of Thorgunna’s bedding, summon the dead to a door-court and charge them one by one. As the judgements are passed each ghosts leaves, saying they only stayed as long as they were let. Then the priest carries relics and sprinkles holy water into every corner and the dead men are banished.

Snorri swaps houses with Gudrun, the heroine of Laxdæla saga
56 – Snorri lived at Helgafell for eight years after Christianity came to Iceland (ie till 1008). In the spring Snorri exchanges farms with Gudrun Osvif’s-daughter and moves to Tongue in Sælingsdale, two years after Gudrun’s husband Bolli was murdered by Kjartan’s kin. Why? Though Gudrun hasn’t appeared in this saga yet, Snorri has already appeared in Laxdæla saga as a wise man Gudrun turns to. There it is explained Gudrun needs to get away from her vengeful neighbours and much the same motive drives Snorri, though his behaviour doesn’t change much after the move.

Styr’s death and Snorri’s revenge
It will be remembered that although Styr is the son of Thorgim Kjallakson (12), he does a deal with Snorri not to attack Eirik the Red (24) and keeps his word by not attacking Snorri after Vigfus’s murder (27), and asks Snorri’s advice about handling the berserks (28), as a result of which Snorri marries Styr’s daughter, Asdis. So when Styr is killed Snorri rides south with 400 men to avenge him. But he is met by 500 of his adversaries and there’s a stand-off. Snorri summons Gest for killing Styr but at the Althing their case is dismissed by Thorstein Gislason. Later Snorri rides south with 14 men and kills Thorstein Gislason and his son Gunnar. At the next Althing another Thorstein, of Hafsfjord, blocks Snorri’s plans and bad feeling quickly degenerates into a pitched battle. Ten or so men die until others step in and a comprehensive settlement is made. —This episode feels bolted onto the narrative, and the numbers (500 men!) and the unusual way the build-up to Styr’s death isn’t explained, make it stand out from the rest of the saga, much of whose interest derives from tracing the way trivial disputes snowball into massive feuds.

Ospak
This is another self-contained episode that could almost come from any saga, anyone’s life. Ospak is a rustler and after a lot of hassle Snorri is one among the many enemies he’s made who band together and kill him. The only failing in this otherwise excellent Penguin edition is that the map which excellently shows all the key locations on Snæfelsness peninsula, doesn’t show any of the locations of the Ospak episode, all of which (I think) happen to the north of Breidafjord.
57 – Ospak raids along the north coast with half a dozen men. He conflicts with Alf the Short and Thorir Gold-Hardarson. He has a fortified stead at Eyr (but not, apparently, the same Eyr as the one in Alftafjord). One day a whale is washed up. Alf and others cut it up, as they have driftage rights. Ospak and crew row up and start taking the already cut whalemeat: Thorir intervenes and Ospak knocks him out with the back of an axe.
58 – Ospak and fourteen men go to Thambardale and raid Alf’s house, stealing everything. Servants warn Thorir at Tongue who goes after them with eighteen men. A full scale battle in which Ospak strikes Thorir over the neck but hits his knife-on-a-strap, more fighting then Ospak and men run off to their fortified farm.
59 – Snorri represents Thorir and Alf at The Thors ness assembly and gets Ospak and crew outlawed. Snorri rides to enact the confiscation only to discover Ospak and his men have packed all their goods and sailed far north, where they set up a base and continue raiding.
60 – Snorri enacts the confiscation anyway and divides what was left of the belongings among Alf and Thorir. At summer’s end Ospak and crew sail south to Bitra, put in at Eyr and carry the loot to the fortified farm, where Ospak’s wife and son had remained. They sail onto Tongue in Bistra, drag Thorir out of bed and kill him on the spot, steal all his goods, then carry on to Thambardale, where Alf the Short hears them coming and esapes through a secret door. Again they loot everything they can and return to the fortified stornghold at Eyr, haul the boats inside and make it impenetrable.
61 – Snorri takes in Alf and his family and makes sure of the lie of the land. Just before Christmas he calls on Thrand Stigandi.
62 – Snorri calls on Sturla Thjodreksson and other neighbours till he has fifty men. At Tongue thirty more join and they ride north to Eyr. The fight starts with both sides throwing lots of stones. Finally Sturla’s spear knocks Ospak down and Sturla kills him, then they kill two more and the vikings surrender. Snorri gives them safe passage so long as they split up. He lets Ospak’s widow and son keep the farm. Glum marries Thordis, sister of Grettir the Strong, and their son was that Ospak who quarrels with Odd Ofeigsson (the plot of the Bandamanna saga).

Thorolf’s ghost (part two) and the magic bull
63 – Another story or legend which could, frankly, be attached to anyone. We thought we’d heard the last of Thorolf Twist-Foot in chapter 34. Now, after all this time, he is back haunting farms at Ulfarsfell and Orlygsstad. Farmers call on Thorodd Thorbrandsson to help. He goes with slaves to Twist-Foot’s Knoll, break open the grave and roll Thorolf’s corpse down to the shore where they create a pyre and burn it. Coming back they witness a cow break a leg. They patch it up and let it roam on the hill where it seen frolicking with an unknown bull and licking the stones where Thorolf was burned. It gets pregnant and has a bull calf which grows with uncanny speed. Thorodd’s foster-mother, old and blind, predicts no good will come of it and they should slaughter it. But Thorodd deceives her, keeps it, feeds it as it grows into a monster and call it Glaesir. In the summer, after a heavy rain, Glaesir runs mad in the home meadow attacking the hayricks. Thorodd goes out to calm him, ends up wrestling with him and is finally tossed and gored in the guts. He limps home where he dies in bed. This same Thorodd was one of Snorri’s companions in the killing of Thorolf Twist-Foot’s noble son, Arnkel (37) and a participant in the Battle of Vigra Fjord (45). He is buried in the local church.— This story is a stand-alone anecdote which needn’t have been in the saga at all.

Vinland
64 – A marvellously haunting and romantic chapter in which a man named Gudleif Gudlaugsson sets out from Norway in the reign of King Olaf the Saint (1015-30), heading for Dublin but is blown way off course by stormy winds, arriving at a big country where they are cpatured by hundreds of locals and dragged before their big grey-haired leader who, to their astonishment addresses them in Norse, asks after Iceland, then about the west fjords, then specifically about Thurid and her son Kjartan. He refuses to name himself but asks them to give Thurid a ring and Kjartan a sword, then bids them leave in a hurry before the locals kill them. Legend has it this man was Bjorn the Breidavik-Champion, who we first met making unwanted visits to Thurid, Snorri’s sister, back in chapter 29, before he was exiled and went to join the Jomsvikings. It is a strange and haunting almost-ending to the book.

65 – Snorri’s descendants The actual ending is a final chapter lovingly rounding up the descendants of Snorri’s many children.

Sayings

  • What happens to others can happen to you (32)

Helgafell

Translations

Helgafell

Helga Fell or Holy Mountain where Thorolf Mostur-Beard settles and which no man is allowed to look on unless he has washed (Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

The saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi

Hrafnkels saga Freysgoða. Hrafnkel is his name, godi means priest though it also came to mean chieftain or secular power, and Frey was the Norse god of fertility. So: the saga of Hrafnkel the priest of Frey. Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi is well-known for being one of the shortest and most focused of the sagas, telling its story with clarity and directness. In the Penguin edition it has 16 chapters; in the 1882 free online translation by John Coles it has 20.

1 – In the days of King Harald Fair-Hair (870-930) a man called Hallfred brings his wife and son Hrafnkel to Breiddal in Iceland. In a vision a woman tells him to move his house which he does and avoids an avalanche. The new place is named Hallfredsstadir.
2 – Hrafnkel comes of age and builds his own farm in Jokunsdal which he names Adalbol. He builds a large temple to Frey. He settles the valley and imposes himself on the population as their godi. He is not a good godi, being unfair, not paying reparations etc.
3 – A man named Bjarni lives on a farm at Laugarhus. He has sons, the argumentative lawyer Sam and Eyjolf who adventures abroad to Denmark and onto Constantinople. Hrafnkel reverences one stalion which he dedicates to Frey and names Freyfaxi and forbids any man to ride it.
4 – There is a farmer named Thorbjorn, Bjarni’s brother. He is not well off and has many dependents. Thorbjorn tells his eldest son Einar he needs to get a job. Einar rides over to Adalbol to see Hrafnkel who has filled most of  his vacancies but can offer him the job of shepherd, which Einar takes. Thee is one condition: he must not ride the stallion named Freyfaxi. Hrafnkel will kill any man who rides it.
5 – Einar does well all summer but one day wakes up and thrity sheep are missing. He needs to find them but when he goes to round up a horse to ride all the others run away. Except Freyfaxi who, as one fated, stands stock still while Einar eventually decides to saddle and ride him. Einar rides freyfaxi all round the hills looking for the sheep and eventually finds them where he started. As soon as he dismounts Freyfaxi, covered in mud and sweat, bolts down to the farmhouse where a woman reports his state to Hrafnkel who is angry. Next morning he rides up to the sheiling, confirms that Einar did indeed ride his horse, and kills him with one axe stroke. He buries his body in a shallow grave at a place which becomes known as Einarsvardi.
6 – Thorbjorn rides to:

  • Adalbol to complain to Thorbjorn. Thorbjorn concedes it was a bad deed and offers him the pick of his cattle, placements and advancement for his sons and daughters, and free choice of what he’s got in his home. But Thorbjorn insists on independent arbitration ie that he be treated as an equal, and this Thorbjorn scornfully refuses.
  • Thorbjorn rides on to Laugurhus to his brother Bjarni who thinks he’s stupid for turning down Hrafnkel’s generous offer.
  • and on to Leikskalar to see Sam, his brother’s son, who he persuades very reluctantly to take over the case (of, after all, avenging his cousin).

7 –  Sam observes the formalities of Icelandic law: he rides to a farm, gathers a crowd, and accuses Hrafnkel of the murder. Then goes home. Summer passes and winter then in spring, in the Summons Days, Sam rides to Adalbol and formally accuses Hrafnkel of the murder. Hrafnkel assembles a posse of 70 retainers and rides to the Althing. Sam musters as many unattached men as he can and rides to the Althing by a different route. He and his uncle Thorbjorn go round the booths asking for support but no-one will help as they all say Hrafnkel wins all his case, and Sam is no kin of theirs.
8 – Thorbjorn says maybe they shouls pack their bags and head home. Sam says he’s got him into this mess and he’s going to see it through to the end. Just then a man with a streak of white hair comes walking by. He is Thorkel Thjostarson just returned from Constantinople. He has brothers Thorgeir and Thormod. After having Sam’s situation explained Thorkel says he will support him.
9 – The elaborate ruse of stumbling over Thorgeir’s sore toe leads the brothers to argue, Thorgeir saying Hrafnkel always wins, Thorkel can have the godord back if he wants etc. Thorkel refuses all this and talks Thorgeir round into supporting Sam and old man Thorbjorn.
10 – The Thjostarssons muster at the Law Rock while Sam presents his case flawlessy. When Hrafnkel is told he thinks he’ll just ride up there and scare them off, but the throng is so great he can’t make his way through and so doesn’t have chance to present a defence (!) and so is sentenced in his absence to full outlawry. Thorkel says Hrafnkel will probably ride home confident in the knowledge that Sam won’t do the necessary follow-up ie serving notice of the outlawry in person. Thorkel says he his brothers and retainers will help. So they all ride across Iceland to the east (15 days) arriving at Hrafnkel’s valley on the morning that the confiscation court is meant to be carried out.
11 – Sam, the Thjostarrsons and sixty (!) of their retainers run down to the farm and terrorise the people. They lock all the women and children in a barn. They then pierce the ankles of all eight of the men and hang them by the ankles by a rope over a beam. Thorkel and Sam discuss what to do. Thorgeir and Sam go to a knoll an arrow’s shot from the farm to carry out the confiscation court. Hrafnkel offers self-judgement and Sam says he is going to spare him, but confiscate his farm, all the land and livestock and also Hrafnkel’s godi or chieftainship. Hrafnkel packs all his people and belongings and leaves Adalbol that day. He migrates east and buys a poor farm but by sheer hard work builds it up and names it Hrafnkelsstadir.
12 – The Thjostarssons advise Sam to be wise and just to his new thingmen. They examine the horses and don’t see anything special about Freyfaxi, but decide they must give him back to his part-owner (the god) so they set a stone around his neck and push him over a high waterfall, ever since known as Freyfaxahamar. They strip and burn Frey’s temple, then depart on excellent terms with much gift-giving and return west.
13 – When Hrafnkel hears the Thjostarssons have stripped his temple and burned the idols he abandons paganism, ceasing to sacrifice. Hrafnkel thrives, acquires wealth and, as the land east of Lagarfljot becomes populated, he builds a great following of thingmen. He is a wiser and kinder man.
14 – One day Sam’s brother Eyvind returns from long merchanting abroad. He is rich dressed in fine clothes. Sam sends him horses and Eyvind, four merchants and his boy set off with pack horses towards Adalbol. A erving woman washing linen in the river watches them go by and, as so often, goes to report it to Hrafnkel and goads him, taunting that people grow soft with age , and what an opportunity this would be for revenge. Hrafnkel musters his supporters and 18 of them set out in pursuit. This chapter is famous for the highly-detailed description of the lie of the rivers, bogs, lava fields which the two parties cross. Eyvind’s boy repeatedly advises him to flee but Eyvind refuses to flee someone he hasn’t offended. Hrafnkel caches him up and massacres Eyvind and his troop. The boy had fled fast to Adalbol where he tells Sam but by the time Sam and supporters arrive his brother is dead. They give chase but Hrafnkel is too far ahead and makes it home safely.
15 – Hrafnkel makes a surprise attack on Sam with no fewer than 70 supporters and catches him in his bed. He offers him death or self-judgement, which Sam accepts. Hrafnkel turfs him out of Adalbol, telling him to take only what he brought. Hrafnkel will resume living there and resume the godard and Sam will live back on his farm in Leikskalar with his kin. Which is what happens.
16 – Sam rankles. He rides west to visit the Thjostarssons asking for help. But this time they turn him down. They told him to kill Hrafnkel when he had the chance; now he is reaping the result of ignoring their advice. And no, they refuse to ride all the way out east to take part in further fighting. They offer gifts but Sam refuses them and rides home disgruntled. He lives out his life in this lowly position, never achieving revenge. Hrafnkel by contrast lives in honour till he dies of an illness. His properties are divided between his sons.

Thoughts

‘The saga has been interpreted as the story of a man who arrives at the conclusion that the true basis of power does not lie in the favor of the gods but in the loyalty of one’s subordinates.’ (Wikipedia)

Debate has raged for over a century about whether the saga stems from oral tradition preserving the memory of actual events, or whether it is a work of fiction by a 13th century writer, creating what has been described as it ‘one of the most perfect short novels in world literature.’

It seems probable that the peg of the narrative, the specialness of Freyfaxi and his standing still to tempt Einar, his running to his master after being ridden, and his ultimate sacrifice, may have origins in pagan horse-worship. But there is nothing else supernatural or uncanny in the tale, unlike most sagas which have plenty of omens and prophecies which suggest to me the theory of a 13th century author setting out to create a novella and using disparate elements which were to hand.

Aliens

What strikes this reader is the complete alienness of the concepts of justice and honour which permeate the saga. It is difficult to understand that Hrafnkel can be tried and sentenced at the Althing without even appearing to make a defence. It is boggling that, having thus been outlawed, Hrafnkel can be attacked, tortured, maimed and killed by Sam with no comeback, and so can his farmhands. It is terrifying that quite out of the blue Hrafnkel can murder Eyvind and four completely uninvolved merchants and, again, not only get away scot-free but regain all his lost possessions – and be universally judged the winner! Obviously intended by the author to deserve to be held in high honour and esteem for sitting things out and finally getting  his way.

The complete ‘otherness’ of the entire system of values of the sagas completely overshadows the minor issue of whether the stories are oral history or fiction or a combination of the two. They are powerful insights into a mindset which is so alien to ours in almost every way that they almost amount to science fiction.

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Other sagas

Egil’s saga (13th century)

Then Egil said, ‘Let us go back to the farm and acquit ourselves like true warriors: kill everyone we can catch and take all the valuables we can carry.’ (Ch 58)

The saga of Egil Skallagrimsson is said to be one of the masterpieces of the genre, along with the sagas of Grettir, Njal and the people of Laxdale.

The saga is 90 chapters long. Typically the eponymous hero only appears in chapter 31, over a third in, and is old and ceases to play much of an active role by chapter 80 – ie as with all the other sagas one man’s life is deeply embedded in the lives and stories of his forebears and ancestors.

That first third is devoted to the collapse of the relationship between Norwegian King Harald Fine-Hair, or Tangle-hair as is here translated, and one of his leading men Thorolf Kveldulfsson. In brief Thorolf serves the king excellently but is the victim of slanders made by the sons of the second marriage of a man whose property he inherited via his friend, the grandson. In their bid to regain the property they think rightly theirs, the sons convince Harald Thorolf is a traitor plotting his murder and Harald first deprives Thorolf of his role of King’s tax collector, then surrounds his homestead, burning it (as in Njal’s saga) before massacring the men who run out. Thorolf’s downfall convinces Egil’s father Grim the Bald (Skallagrim) and many of his kinsfolk to flee Harald’s dictatorial behaviour for the newly discovered and unpopulated island of Iceland.

History

One thing which makes Egil’s saga easier to read than most is that it is firmly embedded in a historical framework. Egil’s family are entangled with successive kings of Norway, Denmark and England. The first third of the saga is the story of Egil’s uncle Thorolf’s doomed relationship with King Harald Fine-Hair. Once he has reached adulthood, Egil sails back to Norway where he has difficult relations with Harald’s son Eirik Bloodaxe, serves King Athelstan of England in battle against King Olaf the Red of Scotland, and falls foul of King Gorm of Denmark.

The known dates of these kings, their battles and successions, although a bit mangled in the saga, nonetheless give the reader a fixed and logically unfolding framework or chronology in which to situate the narrative. Unlike, say, the Eyrbyggja saga, where obscure events relate only to other obscure events, and unknown characters relate to lots of other unknown characters, creating a tapestry of confusion.

Psychopath

I’ve read blurb saying Egil is an ambivalent figure. He’s not. He’s a violent psychopath. He kills lots of people. As a youth he is unnaturally large and ugly and strong. He commits his first murder aged seven and doesn’t look back. He kills Bard at the feast where Bard is hosting King Eirik Bloodaxe along with his queen Gunnhild. He kills all the men in the boat Eirik sends after him, including Eirik’s son prince Rognvald.

The warship gave such a jolt that the sea flooded over one side and filled it. Egil leaped aboard, clutching his halberd and urged his men to let no one on the ship escape alive. Meeting no resistance, they did just that: everyone on the ship was killed, and none escaped. Rognvald and his men died there, thirteen of them in all. Egil and his men rowed to the island of Herdla. Then Egil spoke a verse:

We fought, I paid no heed
that my violent deeds might be repaid.
My lightning sword I daubed with the blood
of warlike Eirik and Gunnhild’s son.
Thirteen men fell there,
pines of the sea’s golden moon,
on a single ship; the bringer
of battle is hard at work.

He kills all the men he confronts in battle fighting for King Athelstan. He kills Olvir. He kills Berg-Onund and Frodi and Hadd. And the appalling savagery of Viking mentality is described with blunt factuality as Egil and his brother Thorolf go a-viking, killing countless farmers and their workers, stealing everything they can carry, burning everything else.

In the spring, Thorolf and Egil equipped big longships and took on a crew to go raiding in the Baltic that summer. They won a huge amount of booty and won many battles… One day they put into an estuary with a large forest on the upland above it. They went ashore and split up into parties of twelve. Thay walked through the woodland and it was not far until the first settlement began, fairly sparse at first. The Vikings began plundering and killing people at once, and everyone fled from them. (Ch 46)

Poetry

His poetry is meant to redeem Egil. It’s hard to tell from the translations. These are very good, lucid and atmospheric, but I’m not qualified to compare them to any other skaldic poetry embedded in 13th century Icelandic sagas.

Black Slicer did not bite
the shield when I brandished it.
Atli the Short kept blunting
its edge with his magic.
I used my strength against
that sword-wielding braggart,
my teeth removed that peril.
Thus I vanquished the beast.

But obviously the poetry is key to the character of Egil as conceived or recorded in the tradition and he creates and speaks verse at most of the major events in the story. It’s striking that this poetry is appreciated by all and sundry with none of the pretentiousness which has surrounded it in the West since the Romantic revolution (?1800). The crudest warriors repect the power of well-articulated speech. Good verse can temper very bad opinions of its author: when he falls into King Eirik’s grasp Egil is about to lose his life but manages to save it by writing and reciting a 20-verse drapa in Eirik’s praise, even though, once he’s escaped, he makes it clear he didn’t mean a word.

The saga contains 60 poems in all. Highlights include:

2 – a threat poem that displays Skallagrim’s power after he had just plundered a ship and killed many men
6 – a poem insulting King Eirik after the king gave Skallagrim what he thought a poor gift
17 – a grief-poem for his brother Thorolf
23 – a love poem for his future wife
29 – an insult poem to Eirik and Gunnhild for banishing him
Ch 79 – a grief poem for drowned son Bodvar
Ch 80 – a praise poem for his lifelong friend Arinbjorn

The poems lend this saga something unique, which is psychology. They give an insight, albeit oblique and objectified, of the characters’ feelings. Thus, despite the monstrousness of Egil’s behaviour, the poems – which become increasingly softer and more elegiac as he ages – lend the text a deceptive sense of gentleness. Despite his hideous behaviour, it is hard not to respond to the sad tone of the final poems of his age and infirmity.

Their numbers are dwindling, the famous
warriors who met with weapons
and spread gifts like the gold of day.
Where will I find generous men,
who beyond the sea that, nailed with islands,
girds the earth, showered snows of silver
on to my hands where hawks perch,
in return for my words of praise?

Translation

The translation is by Bernard Scudder and from The Saga of the Icelanders. It is excellent, clear, concise and modern, with no jarring archaisms or dated colloquialisms. It reads as if it is being told now.

Related links

Egil carrying the corpse of his drowned son Bodvar (Photo: Gangleri/Wikimedia Commons)

Egil carrying the corpse of his drowned son Bodvar (Photo: Gangleri/Wikimedia Commons)

Other sagas

Reading sagas

The Icelandic sagas are about family trees and genealogies, hundreds of pages of them. Occasionally something like an anecdote or short scene emerges from the blizzard of names. The reader of sagas must be prepared:

  • To read the first 30 or 40 pages of names and relations and incidents sprawling over numerous generations, before you even get to the nominal ‘hero’ of the saga (Egil doesn’t appear until chapter 31 of his 90-chapter saga is a third in; Njal just appears in chapter 20 of the 159-chapter Njal’s saga) .
  • For the nominal hero of the saga to die some time before the end and the saga to carry on detailing the lives and actions of innumerable relations and descendants for some decades after the main character’s death (Njal dies in chapter 130 leaving 29 further Njal-less chapters).
  • For challengingly complex lists of families and wives and children and descendants and the farms they settled and built and bought and sold each other…
  • made very hard to remember because there seems such a paucity of names: there appear to be only about thirty names, so that fathers, brothers and cousins and blood-enemies can all share the same first name – very confusing – lots of Bards and Thorsteins.
  • For no psychology: one of the appeal of the sagas is the lack of psychology, instead everything is implied. There are sequences of events which unfold at the same relentless pace. Characters comment a little on this or that killing or legal settlement, but you almost never see into their ‘feelings’. Very occasionally, like a gleam of sunlight on an overcast day, there might be a one-sentence glimmer of psychological insight; but there will be at most two such sentences in 400 pages of text. (Gunnar’s mention of the beauty of his meadows, the fateful attraction which makes him turn back from exile and thus seals his fate (chapter 75) stands out as the only psychological moment in the 400 pages of Njal’s saga.) You have to piece together any sense of what the characters are like from a handful of incidents and a nickname; to the casual reader they may all seem like violent psychopaths except some are a bit more cunning than the others.
  • Instead, dialogue and description are kept to the bare minimum necessary to explain what really got medieval Icelanders going – which is more genealogies and family trees and explanations of who killed who, where, as a result of what grudge, the reprisals the killing led to among precisely which of the victim’s numerous friends and relatives; and then the elaborate legal proceedings it all led to at the Quarter sessions or the Althing.
  • For phenomenal violence, killing basically, at the drop of a hat: it’s surprising that Iceland was ever colonised considering the rate at which the colonisers from Norway, Scotland or the Hebrides killed each other. Surely they can’t have been representative, surely permanent feuds can’t have emptied whole valleys. In which case the sagas are deliberately omitting most of the behaviour of most of the population for most of the time to focus on just the grudges and fighting and feuds…
Gunnar's single handed defence of his home against thirty attackers in Njal's saga

Gunnar’s single-handed defence of his home against thirty attackers in Njal’s saga

Other sagas

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 by Richard Fletcher (1997)

Big book, enormous subject. Just as well we’re in the company of such an immensely knowledgeable and charming companion – medieval historian Richard Fletcher. Sadly Dr Fletcher died in 2005 – read the Guardian obituary – but his works live on, and this is his masterpiece.

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 (1997) forms a great companion to Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book about the Vikings, The Hammer and The Cross (2010). The ‘Viking Age’ was roughly 800 to 1100. Ferguson describes in forensic detail the brutal, masculine world of the barbarian raiders from the seas, heathens from beyond the pale of Roman civilisation, law and literacy; only slowly is their bloodlust brought under control as the various Danish kings and warlords are converted and baptised at the end of the 900s and into the 1000s. Ferguson’s thesis is that, shadowy and difficult to pin down as the definition of ‘Viking’ is, there is certainly one constant to all their activities: their super-violent hatred of Christianity. Christian centres are not just attacked, they are destroyed and the inhabitants exterminated.

Fletcher’s book, on the other hand –

  • Covers a much larger period – from the emperor Theodosius banning pagan religion in the 380s to the conversion of the Lithuanians one thousand years later, in the 1380s – and a far wider canvas, from Scotland to Romania.
  • Covers the same story from the other side, examining the administrative and cultural framework of Christianity as it developed inside the Pale of Roman administration, law and literacy, and then slowly extended beyond it.

The main difference is that, compared to the Vikings, we actually have quite a lot of information about individual proselytisers because so many of them became saints (St Martin, St Columba, Patrick, St Augustine, St Wilfrid and so on) and had hagiographies (biographies of saints) written about them, often by followers who had personally known them and witnessed key events in their lives.

By the 7th and 8th centuries, many of these pioneers can be shown either to have come from aristocratic families or to have had aristocratic or royal sponsors. After the obscurity of the 5th and 6th centuries, Fletcher’s book in the 7th and 8th centuries becomes like a tapestry or puzzle, wherein we can see the complex web of relationships between successive kings and their spouses and their missionary monks and priests, the evangelists pushing into new territory, the royals providing the money and material to build them new churches and monasteries, which become engines of education and learning, generating new mission-minded monks who themselves set off further north or south or east to copy the example of their sainted forebears.

Slowly, slowly, by painstaking efforts, the whole continent is converted.

The rise of Christianity

The opening chapters move swiftly over Jesus (‘Christianity traces its historic roots to the ministry of a Jewish preacher and exorcist in a backward province of the Roman empire’, p.13), the missions of St Paul, the letters of the earliest fathers and martyrs, through to the ‘Eusebian accommodation’. The emperor Constantine plays a pivotal role in the history of Christianity because it was he who, in the Edict of Milan in 313, brought all Roman persecution of Christianity to an end and decriminalised Christian belief and practice. The age of persecution and martyrs ends in 313.

Constantine was a practical man who set about establishing peace throughout the Empire, reorganising its taxes and laws, establishing a fundamentally new structure whereby the empire was divided into a western and an eastern half (the latter to be ruled from the new capital he established at the old Greek town of Byzantium which he completely rebuilt and renamed Constantinople). And he brought the same practical thoroughness to the up-and-coming religion which had now established itself throughout the empire, Christianity, calling councils to thrash out its beliefs, to have them set in writing and promulgated under his name, as well as sitting in judgement on the theological and administrative squabbles of the early church.

Eusebius was court theologian to Constantine and, as well as the panegyrics he wrote to Constantine’s wonderfulness, he developed the idea that the empire and Christianity were intertwined: it was their destiny to work together, the wise and good Constantine providing the peaceful framework within which his holy church could save souls, the wise and good Church leaders providing the emperors with spiritual guidance. Now that it had adopted Christianity, the Roman Empire would be protected and supported by a loving God. The two would go hand in hand in peace and power.

100 years later this line of argument got into trouble when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410). Surviving pagan philosophers used this disaster to refute the argument that the Empire had been blessed and protected by Christianity: it looked very much the opposite, that abandoning the old pagan gods had led to disaster.

Far away in North Africa, the great theologian Augustine was prompted the fall of Rome to write his huge masterpiece City of God (426). This completely rejected the idea of an accommodation between Rome and Christianity, and asserted a complete separation between the earthly city with its corruption and imperfection, and the divine City of God. The Eastern, Greek empire, stuck with the Eusebian ideal; the West with Augustine’s separation, with huge consequences. Augustine’s insistence on the separation of Church and State sowed the seeds of the long-running feud between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, and between individual rulers and their archbishops and the Pope, a tendency which led to the rejection of central Church authority in the Reformation. All this was in sharp contrast to the Greek Eastern Orthodox tradition which followed Constantine’s wish of uniting church and state – leading to the arguably more authoritarian regimes of Orthodox countries, epitomised by Russia.

If in the East church and state were nearly identical, in the West they were often at odds. Harmony was characteristic of the east, tension of the west. It was to be a critically important constituent of western culture that church and state should be perceived as distinct and indeed often competing institutions. Built into western Christian traditions there was a potential rarely encountered in the east for explosion, for radicalism, for non-conformity, for confrontation. (page 28)

Augustine’s pessimistic vision seemed to be confirmed when the Empire in the West collapsed and the last emperor was killed in 476. The slow decay of Imperial law and institutions eventually left the archbishops and bishops and abbots and monasteries – the papacy and the Church bureaucracy – as the only thing left standing to embody the literacy, legality and civilisation of the Roman Empire as the barbarians swarm across Europe.

Why convert anyone to Christianity?

Because Jesus told them to. The key passage is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16–20:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

In later years this would become known as ‘the Great Commission’ and was used in the era of European expansion and colonisation (1500 to 2000) to justify missionising to all the native peoples Europeans encountered.

Fletcher’s book shows:

a) How very slowly it came about that the Church hierarchy even considered missionising beyond the urban centres – for a long time it was thought that you only needed a few converts in each of the ‘nations’ – and those mostly among the urban rich. ‘Surely that’s enough, isn’t it?’ Fletcher brilliantly describes how slow the notion of conversion and mission was to emerge. For centuries the authorities concerned themselves only with bringing the pagans within the Empire into the Church; that was challenge enough. He shows how Christianity was above all an urban phenomenon, and identified entirely with the wealthy and – once Constantine adopted it – with the extremely wealthy. These oligarchs fell over themselves to lavish land and bequests on the Church. In its earliest period Christian evangelisation was restricted to urban centres – St Paul’s epistles are to congregations in cities. Christian authorities followed the Roman prejudice that country dwellers were illiterate beasts. Only slowly did the idea develop that bishops should stamp out paganism in the countryside.

b) And this extending of the faith beyond urban centres itself turned out to be a chalenging and slow business – such that popes and bishops are still writing about the scandal of pagan worship clinging on among the peasants well into the 600s and 700s. And not on the periphery, but right in the heart of the ‘Christian’ empire, in Italy itself, 20 miles from Rome – let alone in the further lands of Francia and Spain, or out in the wild frontiers like England.

c) Only slowly, in the work of isolated writers and a few brave experimenters, did the notion of going beyond the borders of Romanitas to convert the heathen become even thinkable – the notion of sending Christian officials outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire into hard-core, non-Latin, barbarian territory to ‘spread the Word’. The first half of the book tells the story of just such hardy souls, St Martin, St Patrick, St Boniface, and the wonderful miracles they did and hordes they converted. (The bishop was the standard rank of mission leader – a bishop could establish a ‘diocese’, set up a centre for ecclesiastical administration, appoint and manage priests, organise church-building etc, all the while corresponding with the Head of the Organisation back in Rome.)

What were the converters up against?

Fletcher builds the text by taking examples of figures both famous and obscure from across Latin Europe (Italy, France, Spain, England) and using the written records we have of them to investigate and compare their various motives, procedures, what they were up against (pagan resistance) and how much they succeeded.

The great frustration of this subject is that we know so little about what so-called ‘pagans’ actually believed or did. A central part of the ‘conversion’ process was to destroy every single shrine, statue, holy tree and so on, a scorched earth policy as regards buildings and objects, and it’s the same with texts – not a single text survives anywhere which records the nature of pagan belief, compared to the thousands and thousands we have which record the holy sayings and wonderful deeds and pious activities of Christian martyrs, saints and teachers.

In practical terms, this is because the Christians – of course – controlled the only means of storing and transmitting information i.e. writing. It appears that the pagans had no writing (apart, in some places, from primitive runes carved into stone) and certainly didn’t have the means of recording, replicating and storing writing which Christians established in the shape of monasteries full of educated, literate, text-copying monks.

But various church officials did, in scattered letters, sermons and theological works, make scattered references to the ongoing pagan practices, and from them we can piece together – if not the content of the beliefs or even the names of the pagan gods (pitifully rare) – at least some of the more superstitious practices of rural people. The De Correctione Rusticorum of Martin of Braga (now northern Portugal), written at the end of the 6th century, is a letter written to a fellow bishop, Polemius of Astorga, which laments the ongoing bad behaviour of his pagan flock who:

  • celebrate new year with the pagan Roman festival of Kalends
  • burn candles at stones and trees and springs and where three roads meet
  • observe divinations and auguries and days of idols
  • observe the Day of Vulcan (23 August) and the first days of each month
  • adorn tables and hang up laurels and ‘watch the foot’
  • pour wine and fruit over the hearth and put bread in a spring
  • women invoke Minerva in their weaving
  • keep weddings for the day of Venus (Friday)
  • mutter spells over herbs and invoke the name of demons in incantations
  • find special meaning in the behaviour of little birds and in sneezing (p.53)

The Christian authorities decried the existence of arioli (singular: ariolus), holy men who uttered impious words at altars and offered sacrifices, who tied ligatures on the bodies of the sick and applied medicines. In 598 Pope Gregory wrote to the bishop of Terracina just 50 miles from Rome lamenting that local inhabits continued to worship sacred trees, in the pagan manner.

And it wasn’t just the peasants who continued with heathen superstitions. A council of bishops at Toledo in 633 thought it necessary to forbid bishops, priests, deacons or any other clerical orders from consulting magicians, augurs, diviners or soothsayers (p.55). The power of these superstitious practices lingered on for centuries. In fact, in the final pages Fletcher gives records of Church authorities still trying to stamp out rural pagan practice in the 1600s!

How did the converters convert pagans?

This is simple and startling. Contrary to modern practice of converting through reading, teaching and discussion, medieval missionaries performed miracles and magic. ‘My God is more powerful than your gods – watch! Told you so!’

While the Church elite was writing and arguing about high points of theology – which is what many histories of Christianity tend to focus on – down on the ground, among the peasants of the Touraine or Galicia or Mercia, individual evangelists were going head to head with the local deities to show that only the Christian God could end a drought, guarantee safe childbirth, prevent a flood and so on.

The point is not only that the Christians could perform miracles – it’s that the pagan gods could too. High level theologians could dismiss pagan power as empty superstition but down on the ground, missionaries knew the pagan idols had power but they reinterpreted this power as coming from the Devil and his legion of demons – something they had good warrant for in the Gospel stories.

Early medieval Europe was a world in which persons of every level of intellectual cultivation accepted without question that the miraculous could weave  like a shuttle in and out of everyday reality. (p.10)

All these people lived in a world dominated by cruel and capricious forces – incurable diseases, natural disasters, plague and famine, not to mention the unexpected attacks from rampaging armies which killed, raped and dragged survivors off into slavery. Traditional beliefs were the only science and the only technology they had to try and order and control and give meaning to their lives. It took a lot to dislodge these time-honoured traditions.

In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power. (p.64)

Only by going head to head with the powers of the traditional gods could Christian missionaries hope to make even the slightest impact. Thus the records we have of missionaries throughout the period (300 to 1400, and beyond) tend to dwell on their miraculous works.

  • St Martin of Tours, according to the written records we have of him, frequently encountered supernatural beings: the Devil several times, angels, demons, St Mary, St Agnes, Saints Peter and Paul, he had telepathic powers, could predict the future, could exorcise evil spirits from men or animals, and could raise the dead, as well as performing numerous miracles such as halting a hailstorm in the region of Sens. A letter he wrote cured the daughter of a Roman official just by being placed on her body. He cured a girl of 12 who had been dumb from birth. On one occasion he was cutting down a sacred tree and the pagans dared him to stand where it would fall so Martin did so and as the tree began to fall towards him he made the sign of the cross and it miraculously veered in another direction. The pagans cried with one voice that Christ was king and implored to be baptised.
  • Bishop Simplicius encountered an idol being trundled about on a cart to bless fields and vineyards: he made the sign of the cross and the idol crashed to the ground while the oxen pulling the cart were rooted to the spot. Simplicius made 400 converts.
  • Emilian was a shepherd in the Rioja district of Spain who was called to the Holy Life and built up a powerful network of clients for his wonder-working. He cured the blindness of a slave girl of the senator Sicorius. He exorcised one of the slaves of Count Eugenius. He exorcised the evil spirits which had possessed the senator Nepotian and and his wife Proseria. He cured a woman named Barbara from her paralysis. He made the sign of the cross over the belly of the monk Armentarius and cured him. (p.58)
  • Eugendus wrote a letter to a demon who was possessing a girl in eastern Gaul; the demon left her before the letter was even delivered. The lady Syagria, member of a leading aristocratic family of Lyons, was cured of a grave illness by eating a letter from Eugendus.
  • Samson, grandson of the king of Gwent, was a native of Demetia in South Wales who made his way to England, received clerical training, and sailed across to Armorica in Gaul where he had a career as a miracle-worker, converting the pagan locals, and founding a monastery to preserve his name and build on his good work. In Trigg in north Cornwall he came across people who traditionally worshiped an idol. A boy was killed out riding. Samson told the people their idol couldn’t revive the boy but his God could and, if He did, they should abandon their idol forever. the people agreed. Samson prayed for two hours. The boy came back to life. The people destroyed their idol and agreed to be baptised.

The centrality of miracle working

Again and again and again, in countless accounts of saints’ lives, it is clear that the chief tool in the armoury Christians seeking to convert both aristocrats and peasants to Christianity was their wonder-working, miracles, cures and exorcisms.

These aren’t embarrassing details to be downplayed by modern believers – they are absolutely central to the success of the conversion effort. What’s more, they have their roots in the original gospels, where Jesus is nothing if not a wonder-worker, a miracle-maker, a curer, healer and exorciser, often pitched in direct conflict with the Devil and his demons.

And Jesus’ powers themselves have their roots in the old Jewish scriptures in which heroes as far back as Moses have to fight against the power of the pagan gods, and prove – even to the sceptical Israelites – that Jehovah is Boss. As Fletcher points out, the Book of Psalms was the most widely read book of the Bible in the early medieval period, and its songs repeatedly stress the direct link between piety and worldly success, stressing ‘the causal relationship of correct cult with victory, prosperity and progeny’ (p.244). And he cites the story of Elijah who, in the first Book of Kings, chapter 18, goes head to head with the prophets of Baal and Asherah for an extended competition to see whose god is more powerful and can end the three years of drought. With predictable results, but results taken literally by two thousand years of Christian believers.

Thus medieval superstition isn’t eccentric, it is part of a thousand-years-old tradition, and is intimately linked to the kind of folk beliefs which continued in the West until very recently, and continue to this day in many parts of the world.

It is the post-Enlightenment despiritualising of nature and the world around us, it is the modern Western denial of magic powers and miracles, which is the historical oddity.

Fighting pagan gods/demons

Thus pagan shrines, idols and objects had to be destroyed, pagan practices quashed – and even descriptions of pagan practices suppressed and ignored – not in the name of a secular ideology, but because they had power. They weren’t just empty errors, they were the Devil’s work, they were the activities of the opposition – they represented a real and ongoing threat to the survival, and to the salvation, of the Christian community.

Thus Martin and the hosts of other convertors like him didn’t just smash pagan shrines and buildings – they built over them. There was power in them which couldn’t be ignored – it had to be incorporated into the True Belief and redirected into the holy cause.

Converting from heresy to orthodoxy

It’s easy to forget how central Heresy was and is to Christianity – the history of early Christianity is mostly the history of heresies and, of course, Christianity is itself a heretical deviation from orthodox Judaism.

The most disruptive among a host of types of ‘wrong thinking’ was Arianism, one of the countless deviations thrown up as clever men agonised over the mystery of the Trinity: if God is all-powerful, what is the relationship with the Holy Spirit mentioned throughout the holy texts, let alone with his Son? Is the Son equal in power to the Father? Are they the same entity? How much of Jesus was man and how much God? Did God give birth to the Son who is therefore less than the Father?

Arius (c. AD 250–336) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt and he became associated with the belief that Jesus was begotten by the Father. Arius’s aim was not to dilute the power of the Father, to assert the absolute primacy and omnipotence of the One God. However, this had the effect of downgrading the Son and, by extension, of downgrading Jesus’s sacrifice: if he isn’t fully equal with God then maybe his sacrifice on the cross wasn’t fully earth-redeeming.

Difficult though the philosophical niceties are to follow, the practical consequences are simple. For most of the 4th century the battle lines between Arianism and Orthodoxy hardened and embittered. Arius was anathematised during his lifetime and the newly Christian emperor Constantine (ruled 306-37) called the Council of Nicaea in 325 precisely to try and thrash out a form of words which would please all sides – resulting in the text which became referred to as ‘the Nicene Creed’.

But so powerful was Arianism that the emperor’s own son, Constantius II (337–361) and his successor Valens (364–378), both in fact supported the Arian heresy, with the result that patriarchs and archbishops, bishops and priests were inducted into Arian Christianity – and that initial contacts with Gothic tribes and barbarians was with Arian missionaries.

It was only with the advent of the zealously Catholic emperor Theodosius the Great (ruled 379-95) that Arianism was decisively defeated within the Church: Theodosius ordered all Arian writings to be destroyed and their authors vilified. But from the point of view of a history of Christian conversion, an important element of the early Middle Ages was not just converting the pagans, it was converting those who had mistakenly adopted the Christianity of Arius, back into the fold of Orthodoxy.

Slavery

We need to remember that the slave trade was probably the most widespread business activity of the early medieval world. (page 113)

Reading this book reminds the reader, yet again, that slavery has been an almost universal feature of human societies. Ancient Egypt was a slave society. The ancient Greek cities were slave societies, Athens was a slave state. The Roman Empire was built on slave labour. The Parthenon, the Forum, all that poetry and maths and drama – based on slavery.

One of the major Roman exports from Roman Britain was slaves: we have written evidence and slave manacles and chains have survived. According to Bede’s story the official Roman mission to England was sent, in 597, because Pope Gregory the Great encountered some English slaves in the slave market in Rome. They were so attractive that the pope asked who they were. ‘Angles’, came the reply. ‘Not Angles, but angels,’ the pope quipped. Fletcher’s account of early missionaries to the Franks mentions ‘slaves from across the water’ i.e. the Channel, working for the French aristocracy. St Patrick was six years a slave.

The Goths had slaves. The Huns had slaves. The Vikings took slaves wherever they went to sell in Europe’s slave markets. It is a recurring feature of missionaries that they are recorded as buying and liberating slaves in pagan societies, where possible. Every few pages in this 500-page-long book Fletcher mentions slaves. In one form or another (as serfs, as bonded labour) Europeans carried on enslaving other Europeans until the late medieval era.

The shift North

The later part of the book divides into long chapters dealing with Big Themes: the Greek missionary push into the Balkans and up into Eastern Europe (chapter 10), trying to convert the Vikings (Chapter 11), North-Eastern Europe and the Baltic (chapter 12). All of them are fascinating, tell gripping stories and shed light on the religious and cultural patterns of contemporary Europe.

But one of the biggest ideas to emerge is in chapter 9 which assesses the early Medieval relationship with Judaism, and then with the sweeping military successes of Islam, which rampaged along the North African shore and up into Spain (completely conquered in the years 711 to 718), over the Alps and only being stopped in southern France at the Battle of Tours (10 October 732), where the Frankish King Charles Martel decisively defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Charles went on to push Frankish domain south to the Pyrenees thus pinning the Moors inside the Iberian Peninsula, where they created the often stunning culture of Al-Andalus.

But although the Christians held their own against Muslim assaults in southern France, in Sicily (threatening Italy) and in the East, where Islam swept through the Middle East to confront the Byzantine Empire – the net effect of the loss of the North African littoral to Christianity was to push the cultural and political focus of Europe north. Towards the end of this fascinating chapter, Fletcher describes a further seismic process, the slow partition of Christendom itself between Greek East and Roman West. It took centuries of disagreement, misunderstanding, occasional conflict, and a drift apart of theological and cultural practices – but Fletcher brings out another important element.

For centuries after the collapse the Roman Empire in the West, Rome (and the pope) still came under the nominal protection of the Emperor in the East. But as early as 800 the papacy had recognised the power and protection of the Franks, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And the diversion of the Emperor’s resources East to hold the Muslims at bay tended to make the papacy continue to look West, and North. A key moment in the breach came when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were diverted from the Holy Land and attacked Constantinople itself – theoretically to restore a pro-Western Emperor, but in reality the army ran riot and sacked the place, killing many of the inhabitants.

The Muslim Conquests and loss of North Africa of the 700s – the triumphant creation of a huge Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the 800s – the conversion of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 6th and 7th centuries, then of the Germans, Danes and Poles in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries – alongside the collapse of Byzantine power which was crystallised in 1204 — all these factors ensured that Roman Catholicism, though based in Rome, would gravitational pull towards the North, around the court of France for a long time, and then the long stormy relationship with the various Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.

So that in the twentieth century Poland could be one of the most fiercely and devoutly Roman Catholic countries. Poland! The heroes of early Christianity – Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen – they wouldn’t even have known where Poland was. In the really big scheme of things, it is this shift of the Christian world towards the north of Europe which I found one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from this endlessly fascinating book

Random notes

– I’ve always liked the fact that the Emperor Constantine, the man who legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire, thus guaranteeing that Europe would become Christian with all that meant for future world history, was first acclaimed emperor when still a general by his troops in Britain – and in York!

– The most distinctive feature of early medieval Christendom was the explosion of the monastic movement in the 300s-500s – possibly as a response to Christianity becoming decriminalised in the early 300s, and then becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by 380. There was no more scope for martyrdom. But you could still mortify your own worldly ambitions (and those of your parents) by chucking in a promising career as a lawyer, or even as a bishop, and disappearing into the obscurity of a world-denying enclosed religious order. The establishment of monasteries went hand in hand with the more orthodox spread of dioceses across Western Europe, a movement associated with men like St Martin, bishop of Tours from 371 until 397.

– It was fascinating to learn how much this activity was associated with wealth; often the bishops came from very rich families, or they performed miracles which converted the very rich and powerful, who  themselves went on to commission churches and monasteries. Despite Christian propaganda, the Church from the early medieval period was associated not with the poor and slaves, but with money and power. This is emphasised by the string of textbooks, sermons and papal letters Fletcher quotes in the middle of the book which were aimed at trying to bring a very worldly clergy under control – no attending communion drunk! Cut down on the hawking and hunting!

– Only when the internal colonisation of the Empire by Christian networks of church and monastery was reaching completion, did it occur to anyone to go beyond the pale of Roman administration to spread Christianity to peoples outside the borders of the empire. Pioneers included:

– Ulfilas (311-83), the apostle of the Goths, who translated the Bible into a Gothic script which he invented for the purpose. Except that his translation of the Bible notoriously excluded the Books of Kings, which are mostly a record of ancient Israel’s wars. The Goths didn’t need any encouragement in that direction.

Palladius, sent as bishop to the pagan Irish in 431, much overshadowed by his successor St Patrick, 540-60(?). Fletcher spends a long passage describing and analysing the work of Patrick but the main thing about him is that:

As far as our evidence goes, [Patrick] was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire. (p.86)

– The Latin word peregrinatio began life as a definition of a type of citizen, an alien or exile from their homeland living within the Roman Empire. In the early parts of his book Fletcher shows how it was taken over to describe the new idea of an ‘exile from Christ’, a person who devoted their lives to travelling and preaching and which became applied to what we would now call ‘missionaries’, men like St Patrick or the Englishman Winfrid, born in Wessex in the 7th century, who took the Latin name Boniface and travelled across North Europe to take a leading role in the conversion of the pagan Saxons, earning himself the title of the Apostle of the Germans. He was ‘martyred’ in the 750s. But towards the end of this long book, Fletcher pauses to consider how the word peregrinatio continued to change its meaning so that by the 11th century it was being applied to planned journeys by groups of people to sites of veneration, churches and shrines erected to the martyrs and saints of what was by now a mostly settled, Christian Europe. These journeys began to be called peregrinatios, translated into Middle English as pilgrimages.

What had once been wild journeys into the unknown had become package holidays.

Crusading violence

The final part of Europe to be converted to Christianity was up in the north-east, in northern Poland, in Livonia, along the Baltic and into the big and successful Duchy of Lithuania. Fletcher’s final chapter paints a rather grim picture of how this final proselytising effort was darker and more violent than what had come before, mainly under the influence of the Crusades. He has to take a detour to explain how the rhetoric of anti-Muslim Crusade came to be redirected towards the last pagan kingdoms – and also how the Crusades witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, bands or ‘orders’ of knights banding together to either fight in the Holy Land or, like the Knights Templars, to protect pilgrims and other travellers to Palestine. Thus military orders grew up in the north-east devoted to converting the pagan, by fierce military means if necessary, the most notable examples being the Sword of the Brethren and the Teutonic Order. This Wikipedia map gives a good picture of the geographical territories involved and the way ‘conversion’ had been reduced to a military campaign.

Astonishingly, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania held on to its pagan status and religion until as late as 1386 when the Grand Duke seized the purely contingent opportunity of marrying the ten-year-old girl who’d inherited the throne of Poland and had to submit to baptism as part of the political deal.

But these last few centuries of the story are redolent of war, conquest, seizure of territory, rebellions by the conquered put down with brutality. As Fletcher points out, the castles built by these orders in their conquered territories bespeak imperial colonisation, like the contemporary Plantagenet colonisation of Wales. It is a long long way from the heroic solo missions of St Patrick or St Martin, or the better resourced but still peaceful missions of St Augustine or St Boniface. The licensing of military violence by the pope and Church hierarchy is ugly, and sets the scene for the lamentable invasions of the New World which began barely a hundred years later.

All of which, paradoxically, makes the Christianity of the so-called Dark Ages (400 to 1000) seem much sweeter and gentler by comparison. With a few notable exceptions (like Charlemagne’s genocidal ‘conversion’ of the Saxons in the 780s) the converters of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries were more likely to be solitary holy men impressing pagan mobs by raising the dead or averting hail storms or stopping floods or bringing good weather. Although their miracles may be doubted, the bravery and faith of these early apostles can’t be, and there is something very admirable about it and them, which is worthy of respect.

Some early medieval dates

  • 406-7 the Rhine freezes and barbarian pagan Germanic tribes swarm across it into Gaul.
  • 410 The emperor Honorius withdraws the Roman armies from Britain to defend Rome from the barbarians.
  • 410 Rome is sacked by the the Visigoths under Alaric.
  • 451 The Battle of Châlons in 451 – one of the last major military operations of the Western Roman Empire when Romans under general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I fought against the Huns and their vassals commanded by Attila. The battle stopped the Huns seizing complete control of Gaul and installed the Frankish king, Merovech, as king of the Franks, from whom later Frankish claimed descent (and called themselves the Merovingians).
  • 476 The last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, dies.
  • 481-509 Clovis king of the Franks, pressurised by his Christian wife Clotilde, is baptised on Christmas Day 496 and – crucially – into orthodox Catholic Christianity, not the Arian heresy espoused by almost all the surrounding barbarian nations. This single decision helped to ensure that Europe became a Catholic continent. Clovis founded a new capital at Paris, and called a Church Council to bolster Catholic orthodoxy in his realm.
  • 510s the Burgundians under King Sigismund convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • St Columba (520-97) regarding himself as an exile and pilgrim, established monasteries in Ireland and at Iona, which was to become an important religious centre and shrine off the west coast of Scotland.
  • 530s the Vandals convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 560s the Sueves convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 570s the Saxons of the Loire valley are converted to Catholicism by bishop Félix of Nantes.
  • 580s the Visigoths of Spain convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • Angle and Saxon kings:
    • 597 Pope Gregory the Great despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to convert King Ethelbert, at the bidding of his Frankish wife Bertha.
    • 604 King Saebehrt of the East Saxons accepts Christianity and builds a church in London.
    • Sometime before 605 King Redwald of the East Angles converts – though he later backslides and is in fact thought to be the pagan king buried at the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial.
    • 627 King Edwin of Northumbria is baptised, again under influence of his Christian wife.
  • St Columbanus (543-615) ‘an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe’.
  • St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery (active 635-651) ‘Apostle to the English’, friend of the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswine, who overthrew Edwin in 633.
  • Benedict Biscop (628-90) founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory in Northumberland.
  • The Venerable Bede (672-735) the Northumbrian monk, historian and author of the vital Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (732). Although the book’s purpose is didactic, nonetheless Bede was unusually scrupulous in his weighing of the evidence before him.
  • Saint Boniface (c. 675 – 5 June 754) an influential figure in North European history, who reorganised the Frankish Church, missionised into north Germany, and brought the Frankish dynasty and the papacy closer together, paving the way for the triumph of Charlemagne (747-814).

What medieval history teaches us

Why bother reading books like this? Well, studying pre-modern history teaches lots of things:

1. For a start, it gives a deeper sense of the importance of Christianity and why it spread to become the religion of Europe. It gives you a deeper sense of Christianity’s multi-faceted appeal – in providing a coherent narrative of the world to the illiterate and educated alike, assuring them of salvation and the help of God, Jesus and the Saints; giving rules to guide believers through the many problems of life, protocols and ritual to accompany all the way stations of life, from birth to death; assuring magic and miracle-working for those in need, suffering or pain – in numberless ways Christianity offered hope and solace and explanations and technologies (books, relics, crosses) for understanding and managing human life. Moreover, for pagan rulers, Christianity was the gateway into the legacy of Roman civilisation, into fabulous wealth, literacy, laws, coins and better ways of managing your realm, as well as access to the extensive trading networks of Christendom which eventually stretched from Iceland to the Black Sea. At a personal psychological level, at a social level in terms of law and order, and at the royal level of providing an entrée into the ‘club’ of European royalty,  Christianity as belief system, legal system, cultural heritage and power network was infinitely richer, more complex and sophisticated than the pagan alternatives.

2. It is so easy to ridicule the wonder-working saints and monks and the endlessly squabbling kings and the gullible peasants, but are we any better? Study of the past should make us realise that ‘we’ will also soon be ‘the past’, and that our great grandchildren will look back in wonder at how we wasted our resources, destroyed our environment and ruined the world, while fussing about there not being enough black actors in the Oscars or ‘freeing the nipple’. Our ability to stress over trivial cultural issues while ignoring the extermination of the environment and all the life forms in it will make medieval peasants believing in miracles seem as reasonable as Einstein. They were credulous and astonishingly ignorant by our standards – but at least they left us an inhabitable planet, which is more than we are doing for our descendants:

3. Since Europe went on to colonise the world and, in the last 70 years Europe’s child, America, has gone on to be the world’s dominant military and cultural force – studying early medieval Europe gives a deeper understanding of where it all came from, and why and how.

4. Study of this period teaches doubt and hesitation and respect for the profound uncertainty of human knowledge. Our sources are so limited; our ignorance of human activity through entire centuries so profound; the slightest discovery can so easily shed light on blank eras or overthrow widely-held views – that study of this period encourages what I take to be an appropriate attitude to human knowledge, which is one of deep scepticism. There is so much we don’t know and will never know.

5. We live amid the wreckage of all these centuries of ancestors and predecessors. We should respect their achievements, their cathedrals and statues and jewellery, their saints’ lives and often bizarre theology, because they are the heroic products of the human mind struggling in dark times. To my eye, their often primitive and unnerving artefacts have a haunting and mysterious beauty. These obscure messages from the remote past offer a strange and powerful hope for mankind’s survival.

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

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