History & Analysis

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?

And so we will be taking a close look at Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs today with a particular interest in shame. How does shame motivate narrative, encourage adherence to societal norms, and inform the performance of masculinity? Along the way we will briefly look at the phenomenon of horse-fights and the laws around what makes a murder (it’s more complicated than you’d think).

First, however, what is a þáttr (thattir)? A surprisingly contentious question. They are perhaps best characterised as short stories that can sit independent of the longer narrative arcs of sagas, but often either augment them or are found embedded within them. For example, the wildly digressive version of Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar found in the manuscript known as Flateyjarbók contains some thirty-odd þáttr (and short sagas), which are loosely connected to Olaf’s own story and interwoven throughout the narrative. Yet they also sit independently of that overarching narrative as self-contained stories. Ultimately, however, there is not a great deal of consensus as to what makes a þáttr, and it is possible to find þáttr that are not only longer than some of the shorter sagas, but are better narrative constructions. One such is Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs an exceptional piece of writing with some excellent depth and insight. As this is intended as a short article, we won’t be in a position to cover every element of the narrative, but we’ll take notice as some interesting features pass us by.

Before we continue I should note that, while the þáttr is set in the late 10th c., its authorship is 13th c. This means that, while we can draw some conclusions as to 10th c. social mores from the text, we should primarily consider it to reflect 13th c. societal values.

There was a man named Thórð; he was a farmhand with Bjarni of Hof. Thórð was in charge of Bjarni’s riding horses because he was considered good with horses. Thórð was a very overbearing man and let no one forget that he was in the service of a powerful man; but this did not make him a better man or better liked.  There were two other men working for Bjarni at that time, the one name Thórhall and the other Thorvald; they were given to gossip about everything they heard in the district.

So here is our remaining cast, our antagonists. My apologies for the presence of a Thórarin, a Thorstein, a Thórð, a Thórhall, and a Thorvald. Clearly Thor was rather highly thought of in 10th c. Iceland and this was reflected in naming conventions. Thórð, Thórhall, and Thorvald are lowly figures, working for Bjarni. This theoretically places them in a lower social spectrum than Thórarin and Thorstein who own and run their own farm, though they are characterised as poor. Such niceties would clearly mean little to a man like Thórð though, who our author had described as using his master’s reputation to augment his own. Bjarni was a goði, or a chieftain, and held social and political power not only over his three workers, but also over his neighbours Thórarin and Thorstein. It will be a little while before Bjarni enters the fray though. First we have to deal with a horse-fight.

Thorstein and Thórð arranged a horse-fight between their young stallions. At the fight, Thórð’s horse was showing less spirit at biting. When Thórð realised that his horse was getting the worst of it, he struck Thorstein’s horse a hard blow on the muzzle. Thorstein saw this and hit back with an even heavier blow at Thórð’s horse, whereupon it backed off. Everyone started shouting with excitement. Thórð then struck at Thorstein with his horse-goad and caught him on the eyebrow so the skin tore and fell down over the eye.

Okay, a horse fight. It’s exactly what it sounds like – two people set their horses against each other to fight, clawing with hooves and biting until one owner concedes defeat or one horse lies dead. It doesn’t sound the most pleasant practice to modern ears, but it was an important cultural sport in medieval Icelandic society, extensively described throughout the saga corpus, and even the subject of legislation in Icelandic law-codes. In this case it would seem that the two men engage in the breeding of horse for fighting and, while it looks rather like they both cheated in the competition, it was not unusual for horse-owners to come to blows. What is unusual is that Thorstein does not respond to the blow he was given. Anyone with a passing familiarity with saga literature would have expected an immediate response, and perhaps even to find Thórð dead on the ground. But this does not happen, and Thorstein patched himself up, merely asking Thórð not to tell of this event to his father.

There are three curious things here. Firstly, that Thorstein clearly believes Thórð’s deed to be accidental, by which it would then fall within the bounds of the law, though Thorstein should have pressed for some form of reparation. Second, that Thorstein knows his father and his father’s value-system that would have called for reciprocation. Thirdly, that given the popular nature of horse-fighting, there was no way for Thorstein to keep the event secret. Indeed, it is now that Thorstein is granted his nickname, Staff-Struck, a name that was clearly intended to demean a man who had not returned a blow given him. And with that sort of rumour floating about, it was only a matter of time.

‘Why were you up so early, son?’ asked Thórarin.

Thorstein said, ‘There do not seem to be many other around to do the work which needs to be done.’

‘Have you not got a headache, son?’ asked old Thórarin.

‘Not that I have noticed,’ said Thorstein.

‘What can you tell me about the horse-fight last summer, son?’ asked Thórarin. ‘Were you not beaten senseless, kinsman, like a dog?’

There is no honour for me,’ said Thorstein, ‘in calling it a deliberate blow rather than an accident.’

Thórarin said, ‘I did not realise I had a coward for a son.’

And so we hit our first ‘shame exchange.’ Thórarin feels that his son has acted without honour, he has not performed to the societal expectations of a man who had been wounded. Thorstein in contrast has felt himself to be acting honourably in considering the act an accident. But does he truly believe it to be an accident? He certainly felt from the outset that his father would find him to have acted without honour.

This exchange is interestingly constructed, and it seems that Thórarin had intended to confront Thorstein that morning. His question as to Thorstein’s early rising does have implications that Thorstein is either doing a servant or a woman’s work – a subtly questioning of Thorstein’s manhood. Our author has established that the family is poor and Thorstein works hard, but his even-temperedness and work ethic are apparently not enough to recommend him as an ideal man to his father. The author is likely playing with different value-systems here and, though the þáttr does not make mention of religion, it is likely that the old viking Thórarin and his desire for vengeance are representative of pre-Christian ideas of masculinity, while Thorstein the hard-working labourer represents a Christian cultural ideal of manhood. The (obviously Christian) author skews the story toward the latter and the concept that men can eschew violence and feud, as we shall see.

Questioned about the early hour, Thorstein’s reply is more-or-less that ‘you are poor and can’t afford servants, and old and can’t do anything, so yeah, I’m up early doing stuff.’ Stung, Thórarin immediately throws the incident at the horse-fight in Thorstein’s teeth – ‘beaten like a dog,’ ‘a coward’ – harsh words from a father and ones that require response. So shamed and goaded to action, Thorstein gathers his weapons and went to see Thórð who, while not confirming that the blow was intentional, does not a offer recompense for the deed which would be required even were it an accident. Thorstein kills Thórð on the spot.

Is this murder? Not really. Murder is a rather specific thing in Icelandic law, punishable by outlawry. But it is only murder if a man is killed and the killing is not published by the man who did it. In effect, he is to go to the nearest habitation and announce the killing. Now perhaps someone will bring a law-suit against him for a wrongful killing, and perhaps the verdict of outlawry will still be passed. However, even if deemed an outlaw, there is little shame attached to the deed if the killer has published it – it is the fundamental secretiveness of an unannounced killing wherein shame is found in the Icelandic cultural milieu. Thorstein’s killing of Thórð is fundamentally understandable to other Icelanders, he was wounded and had lost honour, was shamed by his father, and thus killed the man who had wounded him – in a manner appropriate to the law. And so how does this play out?

Well, Thorstein attends the farm of Bjarni and announces the death, though in a rather curious way by announcing Thórð had been gored by a bull. This may be a sexual allusion, implying that in this deed Thorstein felt he had regained some element of lose masculinity. Interestingly, this goes entirely unrecognised by the servant-woman to whom Thorstein announced the deed – she effectively tells him to be off and then promptly ‘forgets’ to tell her master. She is an interesting character and I shouldn’t go off on a tangent, but hers is something of a semi-comic role. She holds knowledge which makes her the nexus of the narrative – everything has so very briefly come to focus on her – yet when she remembers to impart that knowledge she declares ‘we women are not very clever.’ In this pithy little line she explains away her neglect, yet in reality she has taken an active role which has saved Thorstein from immediate retribution and allowed for an atmosphere of level-headed consideration rather than immediate violence. It also seems tacit approval of Thorstein’s act, a recognition of his right to seek vengeance. To me, her delay in imparting that knowledge seem intentional.

Bjarni does bring a case against Thorstein, and Thorstein is outlawed. But he takes no notice and stay at home – legal rulings of outlawry an confiscation had to be regionally enforced (don’t imagine a police force to deal with these sort of things). Bjarni just lets him sit then. But then our two gossips Thórhall and Thorvald start up…

‘We never thought, when we came to work for Killer-Bjarni, that we would be singeing lamb’s heads here while this outlaw Thorstein is singeing the heads of geldings…’

They go on a bit longer, but you get the idea. Bjarni has a reputation and they do not feel he is living up to it by letting Thorstein live. Interesting, another man in the hall calls them fools and indicates that Bjarni would never deprive Thórarin of his son, the only man who keeps the farm at Sunnudalur operating. By which we see that Bjarni has something in his character more akin to Thorstein than Thórarin.

Now, shame cuts two way and while the two gossips may have goaded Bjarni into action by shaming him, he intends to reciprocate. The following morning he wakes Thórhall and Thorvald up, telling them to bring him Thorstein’s head by breakfast, stating ‘I think you are more likely than anyone else to clear that stain from my honour, since I lack the manhood to do it myself.’ Nice one Bjarni, he has clearly overhead the two gossips questioning his unwillingness to perform within societal norms of masculinity, and he throws it back on them. They too are shamed and left with little option than to follow along with the plan lest they too have their masculinity called into question.

At this point I feel good about the situation. It feels like Bjarni and Thorstein are similar men, level-headed and only prodded into violent action reluctantly. There is a nice feel to the situation and, I would even argue, Bjarni knows he is sending Thórhall and Thorvald to their deaths, and doesn’t really feel that is a major problem. And then Thorstein stuffs it up. Yes, he kills Thórhall and Thorvald, but then he straps their bodies to their horses and sends them back home. The two horses riding into the farm with Bjarni’s dead workers on them is a public humiliation and no goði’s reputation could bear that shame without action. But Bjarni does nothing for a while, until his wife says to him:

What do you think is being talked about most in the district these days? … What people are chiefly saying now is that they do not know how far Thorstein Stangarhögg will have to go before you think of taking revenge. He has now killed three of your farmhands, and your constituents do not think they can rely on you to protect them, since this is unavenged. You often take action when it is not called for and hold back when it is.

Now Bjarni’s very right to hold power is being questioned and it becomes necessary to act, though he does note that ‘Thorstein has seldom killed without good cause.’ Once again we see it implied that people understand Thorstein’s killing of Thórð and do not see it as wrongly done – certainly Bjarni brought the case against him for the killing, but that was in a similar scenario to that in which he now finds himself. Bjarni may have agreed that Thorstein had a right to kill Thórð, but as a goði he was unable to let that deed pass without punishment – a goði could not allow his men to be killed with impunity and retain his authority. That Bjarni did not pursue Thorstein also implies his belief that Thorstein acted correctly.

It’s time for a duel, but we’re going to skip it as I think we will need a separate article on duelling in the sagas. Suffice it to say that the two men hack at each other, but each express a degree of reluctance in doing so, and often stop for breaks, leaving themselves in vulnerable positions as if to test each-other’s moral character. Finally the duel stops with no clear victor with Bjarni harking back to the author’s introduction of Thorstein by stating ‘I reckon I would be compensated for my three farmhands by you alone, if you were to be faithful to me.’ And so Thorstein enters Bjarni’s service. Bjarni then goes to speak to Thórarin, declaring that Thorstein is dead. Once more Bjarni’s is testing a man’s moral fortitude and, as the old blind man gropes for his sword, Bjarni realises that he cannot be trusted in his own house. He thus makes an arrangement for Thórarin to see out his days tended to by Bjarni’s men (after telling him that Thorstein is, in fact, alive).

And there it ends, but a few thoughts for you as we finish. Firstly, Bjarni seems like a nice guy, but let’s not be fooled. By the end of the saga he has brought a well-liked young man, a potential future rival for power, under his control and absorbed his farm into his own land-holdings. He has used cunning and his political power throughout the þáttr to his own advantage. Secondly, I want to reiterate the pre-Christian – Christian dichotomy as it seems clear to me that this is what this author intended. Bjarni and Thorsteinn represent a change in social mores. Thórð and Thórarin represent a culture of violence and feud, in which the performance of masculinity dictated a necessity for vengeance and decried compromise. Bjarni and Thorsteinn are even-headed men who can be goaded into action, but for whom masculinity is compromise – both men seek non-violent routes first and are willing to sacrifice honour for what they feel is right. Ultimately Thorstein kills Thórð while Bjarni rejects Thórarin – society is rejecting the cultural values of the past.

Lastly, shame. Shame is such a motivator throughout this narrative. It drives Thorstein to kill Thórð, Bjarni to send two incompetent assassins, it drives the final duel. Simply because the author is painting a picture of an Iceland that is moving away from a reactionary vengeance culture, it does not mean that there are instances where vengeance is not required. Thórð’s death may result in Thorsteinn’s outlawry, yet it is clearly depicted as rightly done. For Bjarni, a demonstration of his willingness to protect those who rely on him is imperative. The narrative recognises that both me need to act. But even here we may be witnessing a cultural shift, yes both men are shamed into acting, yet neither seems to relish in the deed that is placed before them. The performance of masculinity as represented by physical vengeance may be expected, but it does not seem desired.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Flateyjarbók – containing a number of kings saga, this manuscript preserves a large number of þáttr – GKS 1005 f.51v.
  2. Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
  3. Hermann Palsson, trans., ‘The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck,’ in The Icelandic Sagas, edited by Magnus Magnusson, volume 1, London: Folio Society, 1999, pp. 57 – 66. [Translations drawn from this text].
  4. Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, translated by Peter Foote, Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2007.
  5. William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture

Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets 

Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

See our bibliographies on the Viking World and Chronicles and Editions.

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