Reading England in the Icelandic Sagas: Cultural Memory and Archaeology

In those days’, Gunnlaugs saga relates of the eleventh-century, ‘the language in England was the same as that spoken in Norway and Denmark’. It is an assertion which raises some compelling questions around perceptions of England in saga literature.

Travel to Anglo-Saxon England is common in the Íslendingasögur (Icelandic family sagas), but rarely is it depicted with any distinctively English cultural nuance. Rather, saga authors treat England as an extension of the Scandinavian world of their own cultural milieu with little differentiating detail. This is, broadly, what I want to look at today. The Íslendingasögur are mostly written around two centuries after the events they purport to describe. So knowledge of eleventh-century England (and earlier) was either something drawn from a collective memory that extended beyond living memory, or was a product of authorial invention. Though, if you are familiar with cultural memory theory, you may suggest they are one and the same!

Now, this is not something I have done on the blog before, but the text of this article is largely that which I presented at a recent conference. Usually I reserve conference papers as research to later turn into academic articles. In this case however, I was presenting to a non-expert audience and the paper is geared as such: a general introduction to cultural memory and intertextuality in the Íslendingasögur, and how these may relate to the archaeology of Anglo-Scandinavian interaction. Hopefully you enjoy it!

Alright, let’s talk about stories and what they can tell us about a people. In the case of the Íslendingasögur, there are many people the stories could tell us about. This is an element of what makes the saga corpus so fascinating, it is, at least in part, travel literature that locates Icelanders within a myriad of early-medieval cultures from northern Europe, to the Mediterranean, to Greenland and North America (though to varying degrees of detail, accuracy or success).

My specific research focus is on the representation of England in the sagas, with a particular interest in what, if anything, the Íslendingasögur may preserve of Anglo-Saxon culture and history. And that ‘if anything’ is an important caveat when reading the sagas as historical sources. The narratives as they come to us are the written compositions of thirteenth-century Icelanders, and these are the people whose cultural milieu is most evident in the narratives. Indeed, there are plenty of scholars who will tell you that the Íslendingasögur can only reliably be understood as evidence for thirteenth-century Icelandic culture.

Untitled
Möðruvallarbók (AM 132 fol.), the largest extant medieval collection of Íslendingasögur

The Íslendingasögur are tales set in tenth- and eleventh-century Iceland, no doubt an interesting period of ancestral history for later Icelanders. This was the settlement era, when the free Norsemen fled the despotism of Norwegian kingship to found a new way of life on Iceland, free of autocrats. From the year 930, Iceland operated under a quasi-parliamentary system known as the althing. Essentially an annual meeting of regional goðar (or chieftains), supported by their followers, under the guidance of the elected law-speaker who was the repository of, and embodiment of, Icelandic oral legal tradition. Yet, by the thirteenth-century this governmental system of the Icelandic Commonwealth had corrupted under the influence of over-mighty goðar and in 1264 Iceland was annexed by the Norwegian crown. As a result, what we find in the Íslendingasögur is a thirteenth-century cultural memory, or nostalgic construct, of an idealised Iceland: where the foundations of the law were set, and the law functioned as it should; where kingship was rejected; where heroes wandered the landscape, embodiments of Icelandic free-agency and exceptionalism.

So this taint of thirteenth-century politics makes the Íslendingasögur problematic sources for historical evidence within the narrative they present. However, I don’t want you to think that they are pure fiction. ‘Cultural memory’ as I am using here can probably be best understood as the intent of a social group to pass knowledge between generations, though altering that knowledge within the process of transmission. The Íslendingasögur, as we know them, narratives committed to text, are exemplars of that process at a point in time. Literacy, as we think of it, accompanied the Christianisation of Scandinavia in the eleventh and twelfth-centuries and it is by this medium that the Íslendingasögur are first committed to text. But they are not new tales – they are records of older oral narratives that grew in the telling, as heroes became more heroic, as magic and romance entered the stories. Yet at their core (I suggest) there is some detectable historicity.

Locating those echoes of history tends to be a little easier when there are multiple text versions of events, or archaeological evidence, which we can compare to plot the most logical course through history. Fortunately this is the case for our focus passage from Egils saga – but instead of looking at that straight away, let’s take a quick look at this passage from Gunnlaugs saga. Here the hero, Gunnlaug, seeks an audience with the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred.

At that time King [Æthelred], the son of Edgar, ruled England and was a good prince; he was spending that winter in London … Gunnlaug at once went into the king’s presence and gave him a bold and courteous greeting. The king asked what country he was from, and Gunnlaug told him. ‘And I have sought this meeting with you, my lord, because I have made a poem about you, and I should like you to listen to it.’ The king said he was willing, and Gunnlaug recited the poem in a good confident manner. In the refrain he says this:

All the host stands in awe of the generous

prince of England as of God;

the race of the war-swift king

and all the race of men bow to [Æthelred].

The king thanked him for the poem, and as a reward for it he gave him a cloak of precious cloth lined with excellent furs and with an embroidered border down to the hem. He also made him one of his retainers, and Gunnlaug stayed with the king for the winter and was thought well of.

Gunnlaug
Gunnlaug at the court of Eiríkr Hákonarson, illustration by Andreas Bloch (1898)

I have given an entire conference paper on this passage before and there is a lot to unpack here, not the least of which is the panegyric treatment of a whose reign is historically characterised as politically fraught. But I’m not going to dwell too long on Gunnlaugs saga here – I just want to note two things of interest. Firstly, in the Old Norse the verse portion of the passage is a complex construct with Old Norse kennings and metre – emphatically not a rendition of an English verse. The author is therefore implying that the Anglo-Saxon court was thoroughly conversant with Old Norse language and culture. Secondly, and emphasising that first point, Gunnlaug behaves as per Scandinavian archetypes in this situation, as if presenting himself to a Scandinavian king. Moreover, Æthelred knows how to respond – rewarding the skáld with both riches and proximity to the throne. In essence, there is nothing specifically English about this depiction of England – it is an extension of the Scandinavian cultural milieu.

Now you may wonder why I raise this if I am not going to continue discussing Gunnlaugs saga, and mainly that is because I wanted to demonstrate that this ‘Scandinavian-isation’ (which is definitely a word, and not something I just made up) of England is a trope of the literature, not restricted to our case study.

Which brings us to Egils saga. This is a much longer interaction, so I won’t run through all of it, but historically, it is locatable around the year 935. The Icelandic skald Egil attends the court of King Æthelstan and pledges his service, subsequently fighting in a battle that can be identified as the Battle of Brunanburh, one of the most famous conflicts of Anglo-Saxon history and a victory for the English coalition. Egils saga claims that Egil had a significant hand in the battle, indeed that he was more important to the outcome than the king.

Keep in mind that thirteenth-century appetite for Icelandic exceptionalism when you hear that, and continue to bear it in mind as we look at this passage from the subsequent victory feast:

Egil sat down there and put his shield at his feet. He had his helmet on his head. He laid his sword across his knees and now and again he would pull it part way out of its scabbard, then slam it back in again. He sat bolt upright, but his head was bowed low … As he sat there, as described, one eyebrow drooped down to his cheek and the other lifted to the roots of his hair … Æthelstan sat in his high-seat; he, too, had laid his sword across his knees. They sat like this for a while. Then the king … took a fine large ring from his arm [and gave it to Egil]. When Egil sat down, he put the ring on his arm and his eyebrows became level again.

Here, aside from the fabulous eyebrow work, we see the interaction between the skáld and the king as something akin to that between Gunnlaug and Æthelred. Both Egil and Æthelstan recognise the societal framework within which the other is operating, and recognise how to respond appropriately. There is nothing here that identifies Anglo-Saxon England as anything other than a region of Scandinavia.

Egil
Seventeenth-century illustration of Egil Skallagrimsson from AM 426 fol. (note the fabulous eyebrow work)

So, what is pertinent to ask, is what impression of tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England was preserved (or fabricated) in Icelandic and Scandinavian cultural memory, and how that developed over the subsequent two centuries, informing the narratives recorded in the saga corpus.

Now there is archaeological evidence of English interaction with Scandinavians in Scandinavia, but this is limited. Anglo-Scandinavian cultural interaction far more commonly occurred within England, and both Gunnlaug and Egil are part of a tradition of Scandinavian adventurers sailing to England in the tenth-century. This sort of adventuring and, more specifically, viking raiding, was not a common feature of Anglo-Scandinavian cultural interaction in the thirteenth century, which was rather more characterised by religious and mercantile exchange. Plus, by the thirteenth-century we are talking about a very different England to that of the tenth-century, the Normans having taking over governance from the Anglo-Saxons in the eleventh-century.

So saga authors are working with the memory of earlier interactions with the Anglo-Saxons – stories brought back by those very adventurers and vikings. And what I want to do now is look at some, albeit limited, archaeological and historical evidence of Scandinavian activity in tenth-century England, and use it to raise the question of just how Scandinavian thirteenth-century Icelanders would have believed tenth-century England to be.

To sketch a history of viking interaction with England (for the uninitiated), the Scandinavians came first as raiders in the eighth-century and by the ninth-century they had come as settlers. Around 890, the Scandinavian settlement in the north and east of England was made official after a manner through the signing of a treaty with Wessex. The regions around York and modern Lincoln, down into East Anglia subsequently developed a distinctively Scandinavian character. One-and-a-half centuries after the settlement began, in an Æthelredian law code dating to 1008, the persistence of the region’s unique character is noted and its regionally disparate legal tradition codified. None of which is to say that resident Anglo-Saxons were evicted from their lands. Instead, the region goes through something of a two-way cultural assimilation as Anglo-Saxons adopted and adapted the social norms of the ruling Scandinavian elites.

However, the push back against Scandinavian hegemony by the kings of Wessex had begun almost immediately. London, for example, was under Danish rule for less than a decade and did not retain a specifically Scandinavian character. By 927, under the kingship of Æthelstan, the Danish territories in their entirety had been annexed. And that is the context of the source material for the Egils saga and Gunnlaugs saga authors – an identifiably Scandinavian England, ruled by Anglo-Saxon kings.

To highlight this point, let’s finally get to the archaeology.

We’ll stay up north in York, annexed by Æthelstan in 927 and subjected to a program of assimilation over the subsequent decade. I’m focusing in York in part because the city saw the greatest traffic of Scandinavian settlers and traders who may have returned to their homelands with stories of England. In part because northern England is where the passages from Egils saga are set. And in part because there is in York, to this day, one dig to rule them all – Coppergate.

Undertaken between 1976 and 1982 Coppergate is, justifiably, one of the most famous archaeological digs in English history. The dig took place in the centre of York itself, spread over a 1 square kilometre area slated for redevelopment. It took in almost 9 metres of archaeological layers directly relating to Viking York, and logged around 40,000 archaeological contexts. All preserved by the deep, wet, oxygen deprived peat that results from York’s location at the confluence of two rivers. It provided a glimpse into the Anglo-Scandinavian world of the ninth to eleventh centuries as yet unrivalled. Which said, there are fascinating things happening at more recent digs in places like Repton and Oxford that offer different perspectives on Anglo-Scandinavian interaction. But they are also, in large part, conflict archaeology. Coppergate provides a glimpse into the settled life of migrating Scandinavians.

Interesting to us are the following finds:

Commercial quantities imported Danish amber and local jet found in jeweller’s workshops.

Amber

Locally made and apparently mass-produced disc broaches with Scandinavian design elements.

Broaches

Artisan bonework such as this comb, distinctively Scandinavian in style and believed to have been an export commodity.

Comb

These all speak to a normalised Scandinavian presence in York, as settlers, as traders, and connected to wider Scandinavian culture. A place from which stories about England, from a uniquely culturally familiar part of England, could journey back to Scandinavia.

But the presence of other finds give us evidence of Anglo-Saxon hegemony over York by the time of Æthelstan’s reign. Archaeologists also found:

An Æthelstanian iron coin die used to strike coins.

Die

A lead test strike of that same die – one of only six such objects ever found in England.

Strike

And an Æthelstan silver penny struck from the same die.

Coin

What this reveals to us is twofold. The city was under Æthelstan’s control. Coinage such as this, labelled rex totius britanniae – the king of all Britain, is an unsubtle bit of propaganda reinforcing his annexation of the region. But it also shows that the city contained an active and royally sanctioned mint, meaning the city was empowered to generate wealth and granted a degree of trust and independence. Æthelstan clearly understood the economic value of York to his kingdom, and the importance of a soft approach to wielding power in maintaining peace with his Scandinavian subjects.

Now, we tend to think of the modern United Kingdom as specifically close to continental Europe. But geographically speaking, if we look at my rather dodgy home-made map below, this is only true of southern England. It is entirely logical that Danes settled in York and East Anglia as these regions are a direct sea-voyage from Denmark. Similarly, it is unsurprising that it was primarily Norwegians who settled the Shetland, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, and down to Dublin. What made York specifically important in terms of post-viking Anglo-Scandinavian trade, was its role in what historians term the York-Dublin axis. It is only seventy kilometres from York to the west coast of England – travel from Scandinavia to Dublin was quicker, and safer, if the route was via York.

Settlement Patterns

The city was thus a destination for Scandinavian traders, with their Yorkish counterparts then undertaking the further trade to Dublin and its radial settlements. York was a locus for trade, for wealth, for cultural exchange and, in times of conflict, for mercenaries and vikings. It is in this context we find Egil in the north – we should, most likely, read him as a mercenary who sold his sword to the English king.

And, at its core, I would suggest we do see in Egils saga the preservation of dimly remembered historical York. The author seems to have known three things. 1. The north of England was fundamentally Scandinavian. For us affirmed in both the historical and archaeological record. 2. The king of viking York at this time was Æthelstan. Once again finding correlation in the historical and archaeological record. 3. Æthelstan won a great victory over the allied forces of the viking king of Dublin and the King of Scots within Egil’s lifetime. We do not have an archaeological record of Brunanburh – historians are still bitterly debating the whereabouts of the battle. However, we can be confident it occurred though, with correlating historical evidence throughout English, Irish, and Norse sources. All of which leads me to suggest that 4. it is not an unwarranted supposition that Egil may have participated in the battle.

Scandinavian adventurers were known to serve on both sides in any given conflict, and Egils saga, as we saw, reports that the skáld was well rewarded for his service. We should, however, read his prominent role in the Battle of Brunanburh with a skeptical eye. There is no other evidence for Icelanders playing a significant role in the battle, and it fits well with the thirteenth-century appetite for Icelandic heroes as exemplars of that earlier Icelandic independence and agency.

Thus, what we see in Egils saga is a narrative which can, broadly, be grounded in historical and archaeological evidence. Indeed, it reflects a cultural memory of a culturally familiar England in which Scandinavians were a part of the social fabric. But it also demonstrates that, in its transmission, that cultural memory of Anglo-Scandinavian York has lost any distinctively English characteristics and, moreover, has evolved to diminish the role of the Anglo-Saxon king in order to lionise the Icelandic hero.

Matt Firth

References:

  1. Feature image: Vlastas, Shutterstock
  2. Egils saga. Edited by Bjarni Einarsson. London: The Viking Society for Northern Research, 2003.
  3. Magnús Fjalldal. Anglo-Saxon England in Icelandic Medieval Texts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
  4. Sarah Foot. Æthelstan: The First King of England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.
  5. Gunnlaugs saga Ormstungu – The Story of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue. Translated by R. Quirk. Edited by P. G. Foote. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1957.
  6. Richard Hall. The Excavations at York: The Viking Dig. London: Bodley Head, 1984.

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

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

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

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

See our bibliographies on the Viking World and Chronicle Editions

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