Category Archives: History & Analysis

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

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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

The Battle of Winwæd and the Rise & Fall of Pagan Mercia

The Battle of [the] Winwæd in 655 is a little known and sparsely recorded battle, yet one of critical importance to the social, political and religious evolution of the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms from the seventh century. While the death of the pagan king of Mercia, Penda, and significant numbers of his allies was not enough to permanently arrest Mercian political ascendency, it is often considered to be the catalyst for the decline of Anglo-Saxon paganism. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In this year [655] Penda perished and the Mercians became Christians. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C-Text).

In this year [655] Oswiu killed Penda at Winwædfeld and 30 princes with him, and some of them were kings. One of them was Æthelhere, brother of Anna, king of the East Angles. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, E-Text).

Continue reading The Battle of Winwæd and the Rise & Fall of Pagan Mercia

Cnut the Great, the Conquest of England, and the Puzzle of London

In 1016, the young Danish prince who was to become Cnut the Great, King of England, Denmark, and Norway, laid siege to the city of London as part of the campaign that saw him crowned King of England by 1017. London was one of very few English cities of European significance – a trading port, an economic and administrative hub, and population centre. And, in 1016, it was also the centre of Anglo-Saxon resistance to Cnut’s campaign of conquest.  Throughout Cnut’s English offensive, London was a base for the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred II (‘the Unready’) and, after Æthelred’s death, the city unilaterally declared his son Edmund, king of England in the face of Cnut’s aggression. Despite the capitulation of Wessex and the declaration of Cnut as king by a gathering of leading nobles and clerics in Southampton, the city continued to hold out against the Danes. Indeed, the siege did not end in Danish victory, but in treaty and settlement. As such, the resistance of the independent minded Londoners had implications upon how Cnut would conduct juridical, financial and religious policy in relation to the city. Cnut could not allow the city to exert that kind of autonomy unchecked. However, the Danish king had ambitions of establishing an Anglo-Scandinavian Empire and London was strategically important in that vision. Valued for both its continental connections and its wealth, Cnut could not afford to stunt London’s economic life through punitive repression. The Danish king’s early years were then characterised by a series of carefully balanced retributive policies that were designed to remove London’s agency for rebellion, while not crippling it as an established economic and commercial centre. It is these punitive measures that this article will focus on – it should be noted that later in his reign Cnut did adopt a more conciliatory approach to the city.

This post is based on Matt’s published article which can be read in full: ‘London Under Danish Rule: Cnut’s Politics and Policies as a Demonstration of Power,’ Eras Journal, Volume 18, No. 1. Continue reading Cnut the Great, the Conquest of England, and the Puzzle of London

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

Monsters and otherworldly powers are a real danger to the Icelandic saga-hero. Many an Icelander has to deal with ghosts, with trolls, with the undead, or contest with witch’s curses. There are few who have to deal with more monsters than Grettir Ásmundarson (also know as ‘the Strong’), a historical outlaw with a mythologised past. Today I am going to look at three episodes of Grettir’s fighting monsters as he works to clear Iceland of its monstrous inhabitants. Grettir is not always loved or loveable, but he performs a function in a newly Christianised Iceland that other men do not seem able to perform. Grettir alone stands against to monsters. Or rather, Grettir is the only one who seeks them out, as we shall see in each case – the fight against the undead mound-dweller Kar the Old; the famous battle with the revenant Glam; and a fight to the death with a troll-wife and her ‘friend.’ And these are but a sampling of the monsters and monstrous available in Grettis saga! I will be looking at some of the similarities between the tales, the function of the tropes, and what I think the author is up to. However, my main focus today will be on storytelling and, while this is a rather long article, I anticipate it will be an entertaining one! Continue reading Monsters and the Monstrous in the Sagas – The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Death for Dinner: The Battle of Auberoche and French Tactical Ignorance

The power and efficacy of the longbow as a significant weapon of medieval warfare is evidenced most aptly in the infamous battles of the Hundred Years’ War; Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt being the most notable examples. However, its successful use in warfare, particularly by the English (and their Welsh subjects, whose involvement we shouldn’t forget), predates both the Hundred Years’ War itself, and significantly the Battle of Crécy within the war. Continue reading Death for Dinner: The Battle of Auberoche and French Tactical Ignorance