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
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 [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  Penda perished and the Mercians became Christians. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, C-Text).
In this year  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
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 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
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
Tradition (and most chroniclers) tell us that on 14 October 1066, the Anglo-Saxon army saw their King, Harold Godwinson, killed on the field of battle. It was a moment upon which the battle hinged for, seeing their leader dead, the Anglo-Saxons fled the field, pursued and killed by the Normans in their unruly rout. But is all as it seems? There is also a tradition that Harold in fact survived the battle and, deciding the loss of the kingship was God’s will, devoted his life to God as a hermit (or anchorite). Well, if I am being honest, all is as it seems and, removing the debate about exactly how Harold died, it is pretty clear he did not walk away from the battle. But such legends are a bit of fun and it is not entirely uncommon to find them attached to kings who enjoyed a certain amount of popular support, and who ‘apparently’ lost their lives and kingships in battle (and had no known burial place). Indeed, I have previously written about Olaf Tryggvason’s death at the naval battle of Svolder, and he too is reputed to have survived his fully-armoured plunge into the open ocean, and thereafter journeyed on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. What we see with both men is an element of hagiography creeping into accounts of their defeats, in which martial loss is divinely ordained, thus necessarily turning temporal defeat into spiritual victory. It speaks to a kind of cultic reverence (and nostalgia) among their supporters. Continue reading The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder
An act of torture is rarely an act of finality in feud cultures – the family of the tortured man, whether he survives or not, will rarely allow such a deed to stand without vengeance. For that reason, it is rare to find examples of torture in saga literature (excluding perhaps the King’s sagas – that Olaf Tryggvason could be a bit intense). This means that, where saga authors do relate occasions of deliberate mutilation, they stand out within the literature and gain a certain amount of infamy.
So today’s is a brief(ish) post, a kind of follow up to our article on the body in law, looking at the logistics of some of the more famous acts of brutality from saga literature (both from a physical and literary perspective): the ‘fatal walk’ of the Viking Broðir in the aftermath of the Battle of Clontarf, Hrafnkel Freysgoði and his men being strung up by their heels and, of course, the infamous blood-eagle. What we will see in these instances of torture is that, even where the act is physically possible, the sheer unlikeliness of the deed and the manner in which these violent interludes are deployed by saga authors recommends them more as literary tropes than genuine deeds. Which is not to say that brutality did not occur in the Viking settlement cultures of Iceland, Ireland, and Britain during the period, or even that these accounts have origins in cultural memories that evolved over time but, in this article, I want to focus on the acts as written.
Disclaimer: I will only be as graphic as what is written in the saga texts, but there are descriptions of disembowelment, evisceration and bodily torture.
Continue reading Blood Eagles, Fatal Walks, and Hung Meat – Assessing Viking Torture
The breaking of a body is a powerful act. In the medieval world, it was a matter of life or death. A mutilated body marked out its victim for social censure and, critically for a labour-based society, if the injury impacted the ability of the victim to work, it marginalised their social function and forced them to rely on communal charity. Thus, such an act was both a punishment of great impact when performed within the context of law, and a matter demanding compensation of money or blood when performed outside of the law. With that in mind, today I am going to home in on the body in law and in particular the dichotomy of mutilation as a transgression of the law and as a tool of the law. In doing so I am going to focus on Anglo-Saxon law, and the Icelandic Grágás as representative of Scandinavian law. I promise to try keep it interesting and provide some feuding, some torture, and some storytelling (alongside wergild legislation and evolving legal cultures) – look out for men being hung by holes cut into their heels toward the end! Fun right? Continue reading When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law
From its emphatic beginnings at Clermont in 1095, to its ultimately dramatic and triumphant conclusion at Jerusalem in 1099, the First Crusade was an arduous journey of devotion, determination, survival, and some would argue, divine intervention.
Continue reading Relighting the Fire of the First Crusade: Warriors, Priests, and the Holy Lance of Antioch
The Germanic king or lord as the dispenser of treasure, the ‘giver of rings,’ is a familiar image. The reason it is familiar is that it permeates that famous Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf. In the opening lines of the poem, we are introduced to Scyld Scéfing, a man known for violence against his enemies, and his gifts of treasure to his friends, a man of whom the poet says þæt wæs gód cyning (that was a good king). His son in turn is a chip off the old Scyld and, no less vigorous in war or generous in his gifts, has the loyalty of his men, being praised as léofne þéoden, béaga bryttan (beloved prince, ring giver). Later in the poem, just as Beowulf himself is about to benefit from such kingly largesse at the court of Halfdan, a king of the Scylding line, Halfdan is referred to as sinc-gyfan (treasure/ring giver). All these terms are kennings – evocative poetic metaphors common to Old English and Old Norse poetry – and the Beowulf author is implying that gift giving and Kingship are the same thing. There were, of course, many other elements to cultural perceptions of successful kingship in the Anglo-Scandinavian world, but those are for a different day. In this article I am going to take the lead of the Beowulf poet and concentrate on the king as ‘giver of rings.’ Continue reading Kingship in the Viking Age – Icelandic Sagas, Anglo-Saxon Kings, & Warrior Poets
The Eastern Baltic was unlike any other region where Rome sanctioned Crusade. The Northern Crusades cannot be cast as either a purely political expansion of territorial borders, or a purely religious expansion of the word of God. The territories under pagan control acted as a non-Christian buffer between Western and Eastern Christianity and, while the crusades were ostensibly directed at their conversion, for Latin Christendom, it was critical that they converted to the right type of Christianity. In the eyes of both Orthodox and Latin Christians, the pagan tribes of the Baltic shore did not so much represent aberrant religious groups needing conversion, as the inhabitants of lands that were strategically critical to the territorial and religious ambitions of both Eastern and Western Christianity. It is not surprising then to find that, in the Baltic lands of eastern Europe, the crusading ideal evolved to match the unique conditions of the region, combining conversion, conquest, and commerce in a manner peculiar to the Northern Crusades. Continue reading Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Livonian & Estonian Crusades (c. 1198 – 1290)
Dressed in armour, watching his fleet fall to his Danish rival, King Olaf I Tryggvason of Norway threw himself into the sea, sinking to his death and denying his enemies the pleasure of killing him. The death of Olaf (r. 995 – 1000) at the Battle of Svolder returned the Norwegian crown to Sweyn Forkbeard the king of Denmark (r. 986 – 1014), and the Danish hegemony. The Norwegian crown had fallen under the tenuous control of the Danish Kings c. 971 during the reign of Sweyn’s father, Harald Bluetooth. Thus, when Sweyn seized the throne of Denmark at the expense of his father in 986, he also ostensibly assumed the throne of Norway. Continue reading Sweyn Forkbeard, Olaf Tryggvason, and the Kingship of Norway
In 1147 Pope Eugenius III declared a crusade against the pagans of the Eastern Baltic, the first papal call to holy war not explicitly aimed at reclaiming Christian territories from Muslim rule. Instead, Eugenius’ decree gave the Latin Christians of Northern Germany and Scandinavia mandate to aggressively expand their borders into the lands of the Wendish Slavs on the northern frontier of Christendom. It would become a mandate with a long afterlife – once the northern borders of Christendom were opened to the crusading ideal, they remained open for three centuries. In the Slavic lands of North-Eastern Europe, the Scandinavian kingdoms and northern states of the Holy Roman Empire had seen opportunity for political and economic expansion; any intent Rome may have had in establishing the Northern Crusades as a vehicle to win souls to Latin Christianity was subordinated to regional politics.
Continue reading Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Wendish Crusade (1147 – c.1185)
Throughout the medieval world it wasn’t exactly difficult to work out who the powerful and wealthy members of society were, you just had to look for the biggest buildings. Medieval fortifications were, to put it simply, an expensive and often audacious symbol of power. Continue reading The Walls of Carcassonne: Power and Wealth in Defensive Architecture