A Scribe’s Life (3) – Snorri Sturluson

This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.

Scribe: Snorri Sturluson
Lived c. 1179 – 1241
Location: Reykholt, Iceland
Notable works:
Prose Edda – literary work, mythological narrative, and poetics guide
Heimskringla (History of the Norwegian Kings) – political chronicle
Egils saga (?) – Icelandic family saga/warrior-poet narrative

Of all the historians and scribes this series will be covering, there are few who will have such a prominent life outside of their written works than the Icelander Snorri Sturluson. He is almost certainly the only historian we will be covering with the political agency to directly disobey a king and be assassinated for his temerity. Unfortunately, Snorri’s own fascinating story and contentious political life is generally subordinated in the popular consciousness to his most famous work, the Prose Edda, a text simultaneously praised as our primary source for much of what we know of Old Norse mythology, and condemned refracting that mythology through the lens of Christianity. But to construe Snorri’s legacy as being the Prose Edda, and construe the Prose Edda as being a flawed recollection of pre-Christian belief, is more than a little reductionist and not really fair on either.

Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (3) – Snorri Sturluson

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Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

There is nothing like a good outlaw story, they tend to contain some very enjoyable motifs – a trickster hero, feats of derring-do, vengeance, comeuppance and, usually, some interesting female characters. A bit of recent Twitter chatter (here and here) have brought to mind a couple of strong women in two Icelandic outlaw sagas – Auð Vesteinsdottir of Gísla saga Súrssonar and Thorbjorg ‘the Stout’ in Grettis saga. So today I thought we would take a look at these two women, and their roles in the male-dominated Icelandic society in which law, feud, and honour created and pursued outlaws. Strong female characters can be found all throughout Old Norse literature – it is one of the things that makes the sagas so pleasurable to read, and speaks to a culture in which women were able to exercise some personal agency. Auð and Thorbjorg are excellent examples of this agency and we will focus on them as such – the broader topic of women in Old Norse society would be a book-length study (which happily Jenny Jochens has provided). Continue reading Viking Women & Authority in the Icelandic Outlaw Sagas of Gisli and Grettir

A Scribe’s Life (2): John of Worcester

This article is part of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.

Scribe: John of Worcester
Lived: c.1075 – 1140
Location: Worcester Priory
Notable works: Chronicon ex chronicis

John of Worcester was a contemporary of William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, and Henry of Huntingdon (among others) and, while it may be fair to say that his name is lesser known of this esteemed company, his Chronicon is an important and unique source of English history. John’s chronicle provides much in both content and approach to differentiate it from other contemporary histories, while at the same time being invaluable for the evidence it provides of inter-connected networks of scholarship in post-Conquest England. Naturally, the Chronicon finds its greatest direct historical value in its record of post-Conquest history, as this was the cultural milieu in which John operated. However, John was an excellent scholar and the work he did in compiling a history of Anglo-Saxon England from varied sources, grafting it to material relating to broader Western European history, is masterful. (Almost all the work I do with John’s Chronicon relates to pre-Conquest history). Yet for many, John’s name is more likely to evoke the spectre of an ongoing scholarly debate than it is a hard-working scribe and historian, a scholar thought of highly by Orderic, and a correspondent of William, with whom he exchanged sources. You see, until quite recently, the Chronicon was believed to be primarily the work of Florence of Worcester, based on this entry for the year 1118:

Dom Florence of Worcester, a monk of that monastery, died on the 7th July. His acute observation, and laborious and diligent studies have rendered this chronicle of chronicles [chronica ex chronicis] above all others. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (2): John of Worcester

A Scribe’s Life (1): William of Malmesbury

This is the first of an ongoing series of short biographies of medieval scribes.

Scribe: William of Malmesbury
Lived c. 1095 – 1143
Location: Malmesbury Abbey, England
Notable works:
Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) – political chronicle (449 – 1120)
Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops) – ecclesiastical chronicle (449 – 1120)
Historia Novella (The New History) – history of contemporary events (1126-1142)
Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan) – hagiography
De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (The Early History of Glastonbury)

It is probably a little unfair to reduce William of Malmesbury to the role of ‘scribe’ or even ‘cleric.’ William was a scholar, an historian, an author and hagiographer, a competent linguist, reluctant politician, librarian and manuscript collector, and (to be a little cynical) something of a forger, propagandist, and historical revisionist. There are few historians and theologians from medieval England that have left such a broad corpus of material for us to examine, and none between Bede in the eight-century, and William in the twelfth. Continue reading A Scribe’s Life (1): William of Malmesbury

The Image of the King – 10 Portraits from Medieval England

Early medieval England did not have the rich tradition of royal portraiture that existed among in the contemporary Byzantine, Ottonian, and Carolingian courts. Our earliest images outside of numismatics (coinage) date from the 10th c., and of those only a few are contemporary with the kings they sought to depict. But, as we shall see in this article, we are not entirely bereft and, as Anglo-Saxon rule gave way to the Normans and the Plantagenets, portraiture began to become more common and more sophisticated, with iconic images of Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III surviving to the modern day.

So today we are going to look at 10 royal portraits. Taking them chronologically, I will offer a brief interpretation of the image (they are invariably packed with political and religious allegory), and I hope that, alongside providing access to some amazing works of art, this will allow you to observe the evolution of royal portraiture over five centuries of English history. Continue reading The Image of the King – 10 Portraits from Medieval England

A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York

A man of no mean ambition, by 927 King Æthelstan found himself walking on untrodden ground, the ruler of much of what we would consider modern England. His grandfather, Alfred, had beaten back the vikings and united much of southern England (primarily Kent and Wessex) under his crown. Æthelstan’s father and aunt, Edward the Elder and Æthelflæd of Mercia, picked up where Alfred left off, further taking the fight to the viking invaders and settlers. These two brought East Anglia and the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw under the control of Mercia and Wessex, though upon Æthelflæd’s death Edward also absorbed Mercia into the widening Wessex hegemony. Æthelstan thus inherited the kingship of more territory than had ever before been held under a single Anglo-Saxon ruler (despite some apparent hiccups in doing so). And now, come the death of the Viking King of York, Sihtric, in 927, Æthelstan seized control of Northumbria and Viking York. Continue reading A Case of Clerical Diplomacy – King Æthelstan and the Church in York

Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

On the death of Sihtric, the Danish King of York, in 927, King Æthelstan seized control of the Viking Kingdom of York. It was an event reasonably early in his reign, Æthelstan had only come to the throne of Mercia in 924 and of Wessex in 925. In 926 he had sought a peaceful co-existence with York and Northumbria, marrying his sister to Sihtric, but with the Dane dying less than a year later, things didn’t go according to plan.

Clearly, we’re back with Æthelstan today. Specifically, I’m going to look at his annexation of north-eastern England – York and the region of Northumbria. Chronologically, in previous articles I have worked through Æthelstan’s youth, and his (potentially) troubled succession to the throne of Wessex (I’ve also published an article on the reliability of our key source for these early years of Æthelstan’s life). So, we’re moving the narrative forward today. Originally, my intent was to do this via the medium of a charter (like our article on Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey). The grant of land in question, contained in a charter known as S407, gifts lands at a place called Amounderness to the church of St Peter, York. It provides interesting evidence of Æthelstan’s methods of territorial and political control. But I am going to save that for my next article. You see, I started writing up the context we needed in order to be able to understand the content and strategy behind that charter and, as it grew and grew, I realised that what I had written a full-length article looking at how Æthelstan assumed control of the northern territories without ever getting to the charter! So we’ll stick with the annexation of the Kingdom of York and territories today.

Continue reading Northern Ambitions – Æthelstan and the Annexation of York and Northumbria

Rumour and Rhetoric, Money and Massacre – Jewish-Christian Relations in Twelfth-Century England

Medieval Latin Christendom was a collection of distinct cultural polities, unified by the beliefs and ecclesiastical governance of Roman Christianity, and fundamentally hostile to dissenting religious groups. Yet within this framework, the Jews were permitted to form communities that retained a distinct Jewish cultural identity – an identifiable alterity that stirred Jewish-Christian conflict. While it is largley accepted that the ‘medieval period’ was a violent era more broadly speaking, the underlying causes of this violence and the extent to which such conflict was systemic is up for debate. This is what I will be looking at today – specifically, whether Jewish-Christian conflict in medieval England (and France) owes something to systemic tension, regional politics, or popular misconceptions (or any combination of the above). Continue reading Rumour and Rhetoric, Money and Massacre – Jewish-Christian Relations in Twelfth-Century England

Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

There was a man named Thórarin, who live in Sunnudalur; he was old and nearly blind. He had been a fierce viking in his youth, and in his old age he was not an easy man to deal with. He had an only son, whose name was Thorstein; he was a big man, and very strong, but even-tempered. He worked so hard on his father’s farm that three other men together could not have done better.

This simple introduction to Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs (The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck) immediately lays out the problem at the heart of this brief tale. Thórarin was a warrior in his youth and remained a violent and problematic character into his old age, Thorstein in contrast was a farmer, a hard worker who was disinclined to engage in violence and feud. But which man conformed to medieval Icelandic expectations of masculinity? Could Thorstein remain an even-tempered farmer his whole life, even when slighted? What of honour? What of vengeance? What of shame? Continue reading Shame and Masculinity in Medieval Iceland – The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck

Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Hárbarðsljóð is a flyting poem from the Poetic Edda, in which Thor is challenged to battle wits with a ferryman named Harbard (Hárbarðr) for passage across an inlet. Interestingly, Harbard gets the better of the exchange, ultimately denying Thor passage and sending him around the bay on land. By which we may surmise that Harbard is not a simple mortal to have bested a god in a flyting and confidently sent him away.

In fact, it is something of a trope within Old Norse/Icelandic mythological and legendary literature for gods to travel the world in disguise. There are possibly two figures within the Norse pantheon best known for this trick. Loki, variously appearing as a salmon, a mare and, possibly, an old woman, also noted for disguising himself and Thor as a bridesmaid and bride (respectively) in the famous wedding-feast sequence from Þrymskviða. Loki certainly has form for embarrassing Thor and, of all the gods, he is the most noted for flyting, courtesy of his exchange with the gods Asgard after gate-crashing a feast in Lokasenna. (Both Þrymskviða and Lokasenna also form part of the collection known as the Poetic Edda). Yet Loki’s disguises almost invariably involve shape-shifting. The old ferryman is far more in line with the trope of the Odinic wanderer – Odin-as-vagabond, wandering the worlds of Norse mythology and meddling. And, among his varied roles, Odin does perform as the god of (good) poetry. Cases have been made for Harbard being either of these gods in disguise, and that is what I intend to look at today – the elements of the poem that correlate with other representations of Odin and Loki and thus point to Harbard’s true identity. (Spoiler – it’s Odin). Continue reading Harbard the Ferryman & the Embarrassment of Thor – On the Presence of Odin or Loki in Hárbarðsljóð

Death, Treachery, & a Victory Against the Odds: Sir Thomas Dagworth & the Battle of la Roche Derrien

The Hundred Years’ War highlighted significant changes to both the nature of warfare, and to status and standing within late medieval English society. Prior to the more than century long conflict between England and France, the noble knight was both a symbol of chivalry and prestige, in addition to being the undeniable might and power of the battlefield. In a relatively short space of time, medieval military tactics took a substantial transformation. Continue reading Death, Treachery, & a Victory Against the Odds: Sir Thomas Dagworth & the Battle of la Roche Derrien

Art, Allegory, and the Authorship of the Bayeux Tapestry

Depicting the Norman Conquest of England, its causes, justifications, and political context, the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most immediately recognisable, and most complex sources of European history.  Importantly, granted the location of its conception, the overt concerns of the Tapestry’s narrative are the religious and political interests of Latin Christian Normandy in the late 11th century.  However, it would be a mistake to characterise the Tapestry as mere Norman propaganda – the allegory, analogy and imagery used by the collaborators of the work have given it complexity beyond a simple chronology of events. It is this complexity I want to focus on today, with a particular interest in the authorship of the piece (in so doing I will, to a large degree, be treating the Tapestry as a historical document). Continue reading Art, Allegory, and the Authorship of the Bayeux Tapestry

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

The Norman Conquest changed the character of the English church. Anglo-Saxon clergy were ousted, churches and cathedrals began to be built on a much larger scale, the king wielded direct influence over the church, and it marked a period of monastic expansion that saw the number of clergy and religious houses expand fourfold.  Yet despite these changes, it remained that, in Anglo-Norman England, many individual institutions had their origins in the pre-Norman period. Given the fierce competition for land that accompanied the arrival of a new nobility and many new religious houses, these abbeys and churches had a useful tool: the ability to lay claim to a region as the bequeathal of a long-dead Anglo-Saxon king. However, if the religious house in question did not have an extant charter or writ (diploma), and only held the land by right of tradition, how did they prove their ownership? Easy. They created a new one, and believe me, clerical fraud was rife. So, in today’s post we will look at one such example of a fraudulent charter. Known as S 436 and purported to date to 937, the charter we are looking at records King Æthelstan’s gifts of land at Wootton, Bremhill, Somerford, Norton and Ewen to the brothers at Malmesbury Abbey. Continue reading A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

Christmas in the Icelandic sagas is not always pleasant. Perhaps a shipload of berserks will arrive at your isolated farmstead intent on rape and slaughter. Or maybe the undead have become active, killing your shepherds or overrunning your mead-hall. Or, worst-case scenario, are trolls haunting the landscape and ghost seals haunting your floorboards? These are all tales I will be exploring today as we look at the dangers of a saga Christmas.

It is a curious thing that such ill-deeds occur on Christmas in the sagas and there appears to be two reasons for this. The first is didactic. Bad things happen to those who fail to celebrate the festival – for example, things do not end well for the berserks who decided to undertake a raid on Christmas Eve. The second follows from this, and reflects an inherent tension between Christianity and paganism that exists within many Icelandic sagas. The saga world is one in which Christianity was a relatively new player and, in these narratives, there is a recognition that paganism was still active in society, as was belief in creatures of pre-Christian origin, and there is an apparent desire to repress both. This is certainly true of the sagas we are looking at today: the events of both Eyrbyggja saga and Grettis saga occur within a Christianised or Christianising Iceland and, more importantly, the authors of both wrote within a thoroughly Christian milieu. Continue reading Berserks, Revenants, and Ghost Seals – Surviving a Saga Christmas

A Traitor’s Banquet – The Blood Feast of Roskilde

In 1146 Denmark descended into chaos and civil war upon the abdication of King Erik III (r. 1137 – 1146). He was the first Danish King to abdicate and, with no legitimate son to inherit the throne, the kingdom did not have the political stability to ensure a smooth succession. Sources written after the civil war, in the knowledge of the turmoil his departure created, judge Erik as a weak and short-sighted ruler. We however will not judge him too harshly. After abdicating Erik took himself off to a monastery and was dead within months – it seems likely he was incapacitated by illness, and it was this that forced him from the throne.

Enter Sweyn III, Cnut V, and Waldemar I. All three men were of direct descent within the Danish royal line, and each had the backing of a faction of the Danish elites as they sought to become sole king of Denmark. The support each enjoyed was legitimising and, in separate ceremonies, all three were crowned king – to this day, despite the fact that they ascended the throne in the same year and reigned concurrently, they are all considered Kings of Denmark. The status quo of three independent kings of Denmark lasted a decade, the kings variously allying or warring as they sought to gain control of the kingdom. Invariably it ended in treachery, at the infamous Blood Feast of Roskilde. The three men had arrived at an agreement to split the kingdom among themselves and met in celebration for a feast at Roskilde in 1157. By the end of the night one king would be a traitor, one would be a corpse, and one would be in exile. The youngest of these men, a noble son who would go on to become *spoiler* King Waldemar the Great, does not wish us to forget this injustice, the greatest treachery of the civil war. Continue reading A Traitor’s Banquet – The Blood Feast of Roskilde

European Medieval History from the Viking Age to the Hundred Years' War