Viking and Medieval Scandinavia

Published by Brepols Publishers, NV
Print ISSN: 1782-7183
An anecdote in the Flateyjarbók version of Óláfs saga helga tells how Knútr inn ríki learned of the burgeoning sanctity of his old adversary Óláfr Haraldsson (Sigurður Nordal and others 1944–45, II, 488; also printed in Johnsen and Jón Helgason, 1941, II, 832): Þórir hundr ferr til Englands ok segir Knúti konungi allt, hversu farit hafði. Konungr varð mjök óglaðr við þessa sögu. Þórir spurði, hverju þat gegndi. Konungr svarar: ‘Ek þóttumst þat vita, at annarrhvárr okkar mundi heilagr vera, ok hafða ek mér þat ætlat. Þó skal ek nú leggja fé fyrstr til skríns Ólafs konungs hans óvina ok trúa fyrstr helgi hans, ok eigi skal ek koma í Noreg, með því er Ólafr er heilagr.’ (Þórir hundr goes to England and tells King Knútr everything that had happened. The king became very unhappy at this narrative. Þórir asked what the reason for this was. The king answers: ‘I had expected that one of us would become a saint, and had intended that for myself. Nonetheless I shall now be the first of his enemies to give money to the shrine of King Óláfr, and the first to believe in his sanctity, and I shall not enter Norway for as long as Óláfr is a saint.’) Even though it is late and comic, this anecdote contains a recognition of two important points: first, that Óláfr’s sanctity posed a problem for Knútr, and second, that the best way of dealing with it was in fact to acquiesce and positively promote Óláfr’s cult. In this article I want to examine the genesis of Óláfr’s cult, and the important early poem Glælognskviða, from a Knútr-centred rather than Óláfr-centred perspective; as will be seen, this is more or less equivalent to taking a view from England rather than a view from Norway. In short, the question to be asked is: what was the attitude of Knútr and his dynasty towards the cult of Óláfr? In attempting to answer it, I shall place skaldic verse alongside Anglo-Saxon history, in the belief that the two are mutually illuminating; the investigation will also, I hope, cast light on various aspects of Anglo-Scandinavian elite culture in the second quarter of the eleventh century. In what follows, I shall look firstly at the context of Glælognskviða, secondly at its content, and thirdly for confirmation elsewhere of what it implies about Knútr and the cult of St Óláfr.
This contribution focuses upon the role of external forces (strangers) in state formation. In many societies, the process of state formation appears to have conflicted with traditional patterns of social organization, which constrained the leading promoters of the state. In this situation, the incorporation of a third party of agents constitutes a potential strategy for those promoters to bypass the established order of society and implement a new organizational structure. Based on this assumption, archaeological data relating to a particular process of state formation, namely Viking-Age south Scandinavia (c. 900–1050), are evaluated. Individuals and groups of people of foreign origin are identified in the context of runic monuments, settlements, burials, and treasure finds. The roles of these ‘strangers’ in internal social affairs and the presuppositions and consequences of their involvement are discussed. It is argued that they functioned as influential catalysts, not only in the implementation of struc...
Iceland differed from other Norse colonies as it lacked social structures found elsewhere, but also because the Icelanders established their own complex social structures. This article examines aspects of these social structures to determine how they contributed to a new Icelandic identity. The emergence of these social structures may be attributed to factors such as new patterns of social liability that may have developed in response to the unusually scattered population. The settlement pattern may have contributed to the significance of the role of law in early Iceland: a legal framework was required to manage the settlers’ claims and rights to the land. There emerged in Iceland a sense of what defined the settlers, its basis being the law and ‘legal attachment’. The uniqueness of Iceland’s social structures was intertwined with the landnam itself. It was the unsettled land that gave the Icelanders the freedom to create their society.
This paper uses evidence from a variety of disciplines in order to re-evaluate an apparently enigmatic event reported in several early sources – the landing of a Viking force at Fulham in 878. It examines the vocabulary of written accounts of their activities, sets archaeological evidence for a military camp at the site within a wider context, and gives further consideration to the strategic background of that location within a military landscape. These combined approaches, it is argued, allow a more detailed picture of this Viking war-band and its military significance to emerge.
Recent metal-detecting in areas of northern and eastern England has brought to light hundreds of Viking-Age brooches decorated in Scandinavian styles. While some objects are likely to be products of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian interaction, others are diagnostically Scandinavian and may have been imported from the Scandinavian homelands. The following considers the distribution of these items within England, together with their chronology and status. It suggests that such pieces were worn to express Scandinavian cultural affiliation within the Danelaw. Given the status of these brooches as female dress accessories, it proposes that women in particular had a key role in promoting a Scandinavian colonial identity. In this context, this paper contributes to increasing scholarly interest in the value of material form, decoration, and consumption for negotiating identity in the Danelaw.
This paper discusses both the urban and the rural architecture of the Irish Viking Age. Looking firstly at the extremely well-preserved Hiberno-Norse urban settlements, especially the Type 1 houses, it finds that the true nature of this architecture is a hybrid of both Norse and Irish characteristics. It considers the nature of the proposed ‘Viking’ rural settlements in Ireland and concludes that some of these may be better considered as expressions of a Hiberno-Norse identity rather than evidence of a simplistic, and misleading, ‘Viking’ settlement pattern. Returning to the well-preserved urban archaeology, the author applies Access Analysis to a single building level from Fishamble St. in Dublin, concluding that these homes were carefully organized with controls over movement and access. Finally, the Access Analysis methodology is applied to the Hiberno-Norse rural settlements and finds that some of the buildings demonstrate similar patterns of movement to those observed at Fishamble St. This hints that there may have been closer relationships between these sites and perhaps may be the first signs of an observable ‘mental template’ regulating the Hiberno-Norse architecture of Ireland.
Roma on Gotland in the Baltic Sea was an important place at the physical and symbolic centre of Iron-Age and Medieval Gotland. Roma has two particularly well-known historical features: the Cistercian monastery and the gathering-place of the Gotlandic all-thing. This article will consider the nature of the place, the foundation of the monastery, and the character of the thing, and will point to an alternative site for the all-thing. It will be suggested that an older Iron-Age cult site came under the control of a chieftain in the later Iron Age, and that in the Viking and early medieval phases a major landowner or chieftain/petty king may have introduced Christianity, established connections with the continental Church, founded a monastery and inaugurated a thing-place in Roma, just as his equals did in other areas of Scandinavia. The monastery and the all-thing have in the past been thought to indicate the existence of a particularly egalitarian and non-stratified society on Gotland in the Viking Age and Middle Ages. I propose that this was not the case. Through historical circumstance, Gotland never developed a noble class as on the mainland; this however does not mean there were not Viking-Age or early medieval lords with such aspirations.
Of the many references to runes in the Poetic Edda, the depiction of the runic communication between Guðrún and Kostbera in the poem Atlamal in grœnlenzko is one of the most intriguing. This is due in part to certain authentic-sounding details, which have prompted a number of misguided attempts to reconstruct the message itself. In this article, I offer a reading of this much-discussed episode in light of the runic tradition in medieval Scandinavia and the treatment of the script elsewhere in the Edda, suggesting that rather than representing a realistic depiction of runic correspondence, it is best read as a poetic expression of contemporary concerns about long-distance communication within the North Atlantic littoral. In particular, I address the question of the conventional identification of this poem with Greenland, and examine the historical circumstances that may have occasioned the introduction of the runic subplot. I argue that the episode partakes in a sophisticated discourse about the possibilities and limitations of the written word, which can serve not only as a warning against the misreading of the runic message, but also against imprudent interpretations of literary texts.
This essay examines the role played by Icelandic scribes and redactors in the transmission and evolution of narrative in the wake of the translations of foreign literature in the North. Four sagas exemplify how new narratives were created. The substantial revisions by an Icelandic redactor of the Old Norse Bisclaretz ljoð resulted in the creation of an exemplum in Tiodels saga, while the conjoining of the foreign fairy-mistress motif and the indigenous maiden-king motif in Partalopa saga brought about a significant modification of the plot of its French source. The author of Gibbons saga created an original frame narrative with a plot that combined the fairy-mistress tale of Partalopa saga with the indigenous maiden-king paradigm. On the basis of Arthurian narrative structures and motifs the author of Ectors saga composed a serial narrative relating the adventures undertaken by seven knights.
Saga literature abounds with detailed physical descriptions of individuals which help define the personalities of the characters described. While many descriptions derive from the Latin physiognomic tradition, others do not fit well into this tradition. This study applies recent scientific research to show a relationship between physical portraits and behaviour in the sagas which may have an ultimately biological origin. There is a large body of research which shows that the hormone testosterone affects behaviour as well as physical development. Some studies have shown a statistical relationship between behaviour and certain physical features related to testosterone. For this study, I identify terminology which corresponds to various types of testosterone-related physiology and the characters who are described with these terms. I then assess the behaviour of individuals showing these characteristics by identifying descriptions which correspond to aggression and dominance, or peacefulness and deference. Individuals who are portrayed as having physiology consistent with high testosterone (such as broad facial features, thick facial hair, and broad shoulders) are also portrayed with testosterone-related behaviours, particularly dominant and aggressive behaviour. This study posits a native physiognomy based on observations of physical features and aggressive behaviour which forms the basis of the descriptions in the sagas.
Through a critical review of previous scholarship, the article argues that the conversion of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth should not be dated to c. 965, as is usually done, but to 963, which is the date implied by Widukind of Corvey. The cleric Poppo, whose ordeal convinced the king and his men of the superiority of Christ, was not an obscure missionary, but a close collaborator of Archbishop Bruno of Cologne, who at the time was the regent of Germany. On this background, a new interpretation of the political significance of the event in Germany and in Denmark is developed. Finally, it is suggested that the new clerical culture that was developing in German court circles in the mid-tenth century, as well as the concomitant exaltation of the German king and emperor’s quasi-sacral nature, made conversion a much more attractive option for pagan rulers in northern and eastern Europe than during previous centuries; this might contribute towards explaining the sudden success of Christianization in these reg...
During the age of the sagas, two technologies for winter travel were available: skis and bone skates. While skis are clearly referred to in Old Norse literature, references to bone ice-skates are rare. This conflicts with the archaeological evidence, which shows that both technologies were in use. An analysis of the relevant texts, focusing on the boasting contest in Magnussona saga, leads to the conclusion that bone skates were considered close relatives of skis. This is supported by two additional similarities between the two: the use of a single pole and the similar gliding motions of skaters and skiers. Both motions can be described using skriða, the function of which is analysed. This helps to explain why references to bone skates are rare in Old Norse literature and can be used to clarify two passages in the Poetic Edda.
Top-cited authors
Orri Vésteinsson
  • University of Iceland
Kevin J. Edwards
  • University of Aberdeen
James Edward Schofield
  • University of Aberdeen
Leszek Gardeła
  • The National Museum of Denmark
Jette Arneborg
  • The National Museum of Denmark