Sagas and politics in 13th century Borgarfjörður

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Dokumentart: ConferenceObject
Date: 2002
Language: English
Faculty: 5 Philosophische Fakultät
Department: Sonstige - Neuphilologie
DDC Classifikation: 839 - Other Germanic literatures
Keywords: Saga , Island
Other Keywords:
socio-political purpose , reflection of political developments in Borgarfjörður in sagas
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According to my theory (to be published elsewhere later this year), the sagas written in 13th century Iceland usually served a socio-political purpose. They were written, at least partly, to enhance the internal solidarity of certain political units; chieftaincies, principalities and other political conglomerations. Here, I shall take a look at four family sagas from the Borgarfjörður-district and how they may have interacted with their political surroundings. But first a short introduction to the political developments in Borgarfjörður in the period. In the late 12th century Borgarfjörður was still politically divided between several chieftaincies (goðorð). These political units were the backbone of the political organization of the Icelandic Commonwealth. They were not geographically delimited but can be seen either as alliances lead by chieftains (goðar) or patron-client systems where ones political association was not determined by residence but rather by choice. There were about 5 or 6 such chieftaincies active in Borgarfjörður at the end of the 12th century but by 1210 the situation had changed dramatically. A single principality (ríki) had arisen in the area and completely dominated it. This was happening all over Iceland at that time and constituted a fundamental change in political organization. The principalities were territorial units along the lines of such political units elsewhere in Europe and the world. They were ruled over by princes (here used as translation of höfðingjar) and were virtually independent from the rest of the country. In the early 13th century, the Commonwealth was thus dissolving into loose a collection of principalities who then proceeded to fight each other for supremacy in the civil wars that plagued Iceland in the period 1236-1262. Egils saga The principality that took shape in Borgarfjörður in the early 13th century was ruled by none other than Snorri Sturluson, the most famous of Icelandic Medieval authors, renowned for such works as Heimskringa (Chronicle of the Kings of Norway) and the Prose-Edda. He is also usually thought to have written Egils saga, the first of the four sagas considered here, or at least to have had a hand in its creation. Egils saga has a much wider horizon than many other family sagas. It has much to say about the leading characters' dealings with the kings of Norway and Egill's exploits in England and the Baltic. This may very well reflect Snorri's political horizon as he was greatly involved in Norwegian, as well as Icelandic, politics. However, the saga does reflect Snorri's local politics as well as he was not only a direct descendant from Egill but also claiming lordship over the very territory that Egill's father, Skallagrímur, had appropriated when he first came to Iceland from Norway. According to the earliest versions of Landnámabók (The Book of Land-Taking) Skallagrímur's territory was only a part of Borgarfjörður district, the so called Mýrar, but not the inner valleys. Egils saga is rather oblique in this case but seems best interpreted as claiming the whole of Borgarfjörður as Skallagrímur's land-taking and this is certainly how Sturla Þórðarson, Snorri's nephew and disciple, understood it since in his version of Landnámabók it becomes quite clear that Skallagrímur settles the whole of the district. In fact, as there is a remarkable correlation between the limits of Skallagrímur's land (in the extended form) and Snorri's principality it seems quite likely that Snorri redefined his ancestor's land-taking to comply with his own political claims. In this way, Snorri could maintain that he was only rebuilding the old Borgarfjörður of the days of Skallagrímur and Egill and fashioning it once again into a strong political entity. This would serve to enhance his leadership and the solidarity of his followers by giving them a common history and a common identity as Borgfirðingar (the People of Borgarfjörður) compatible with the new political unity rather than the old fragmentation. Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa On the western fringes of Snorri's principality in Borgarfjörður there was in the 13th century a barely existing political entity in the area of Hítardalur. Snorri actually seems to have claimed overlordship of this valley but not to the extent that he was ready to drive off the older family of chieftains that still survived there. These were the so-called Hítdælir, a term which can also apply to the general population of the area. Some time in the 13th century, perhaps in its 2nd quarter, a saga was written about events taking place in this area centuries earlier. This was the saga of Björn, champion of the Hítdælir. It is mostly concerned with the feud between Björn and a man called Þórður Kolbeinsson who lived at Hítarnes in the same general area and within the Hítdælir-chieftains traditional sphere of influence. At the time when the saga was probably written, another Þórður lived at Hítarnes. His patronymic is unknown but he was nicknamed Hítnesingur (of Hítarnes). This latter Þórður was an ardent follower of the Sturlung faction, the family of, amongst others, Snorri and his older brother who ruled the principality of Snæfellsnes, immediately to the west of Hítardalur. The Hítdæir chieftains of the 13th century were thus hemmed in between two Sturlung principalities and one of their influential neighbors was a follower of the Sturlungs. The similarity between the two Þórðar of Hítarnes would not have been lost on 13th century Icelanders and it seems likely that the saga was written on behalf of the Hítdælir-chieftains to endeavor to enhance the solidarity of their followers in the face of the Sturlung hegemony in the area and the threat of desertions. The Hítdælir-chieftains managed to survive to the end of the Commonwealth and beyond and the saga of Björn Hítdælakappi may very well have played a part in their perseverance. Snorri Sturluson was killed in 1241 and soon afterwards the principality of Borgarfjörður started to disintegrate. The area remained firmly within the Sturlung faction and some Sturlung leaders tried, with varying success, to establish themselves as rulers but such attempts were usually short lived. The district formed a part of the large Sturlung hegemony in Western Iceland and acknowledged allegiance to such powerful Sturlung leaders as Þórður kakali in his heyday in the late forties, but after Snorri's death the district seems to have lacked consolidation and continuity of authority and centrifugal elements appeared once again. This is perhaps reflected in the last two sagas discussed here. Hænsa-Þóris saga Sigurður Nordal, the most prominent of Icelandic Scholars of the 20th century, guessed that a man called Egill Sölmundarson who lived at Reykholt in Borgarfjörður from about 1250 had something to do with its creation. Reykholt had earlier been the residence of Snorri Sturluson and the power hub of his principality. Egill was closely connected with the Sturlungs, he was the son of Snorri's sister and this is why he acquired Reykholt. However, not being a Sturlung of the male line, he had little chance of ruling, let alone building, a principality of his own. Instead he became a leading member of the Borgarfjörður gentry (here used as a translation of the term 'stórbændur'). As such he was influential in the internal politics of Borgarfjörður and had a lot to say about the chances various Sturlung leaders had of establishing themselves as rulers of the district. It also seems likely that, as the principality disintegrated, local leaders, such as Egill Sölmundarson, became more important in their immediate surroundings, even building some sorts of small political units. This is especially likely for Egill as he controlled not only the prestigious Reykholt but also the extensive property that went with it and this made a lot of people dependent on him. Although Egill's political and social position was not dissimilar to the earlier chieftains (such as the Hítdælir) his influence was informal and not a part of the official political organization of the Commonwealth (which was still sometimes adhered to in name if not in practice) and is likely to have survived the demise of the Commonwealth. Hænsa-Þóris saga, if written by (or on behalf of) Egill Sölmundarson, fits well into his political situation. It deals with local events of the 9th century in the immediate vicinity of Reykholt and one of the main characters of the saga, Tungu-Oddur (not Hænsa-Þórir - he was the villain), lived at the manor of Breiðabólstaður, which was essentially the same as Reykholt (the name-change reflects a shift in the centre of gravity within the manor). For Egill of Reykholt the saga may have served to build a sense of common history and identity amongst his neighbors. Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu Hænsa-Þóris saga may have been written after the fall of the Commonwealth in 1262 and this is even more likely for Gunnlaugs saga although this is by no means certain. When Iceland became a part of the Norwegian kingdom some fundamental changes were made to the political system and government. Instead of principalities there came sheriffs (syslumenn) and these were only 2-4 for the whole country until around 1320. This means that there was plenty of scope for local leaders to make themselves count and in the initial period after 1262, witch must have been one of political uncertainty, it seems likely that these men felt the need to build up a firm body of followers in their vicinity. This is the likely background to the creation of Gunnlaugs saga, essentially similar to the one for Hænsa-Þóris saga. We do not know who was behind the writing of this saga but it may very well be someone like Nikulas Oddsson. The hero of the saga was from Gilsbakki, a manor close to the mountains and Nikulas lived at the neighboring manor of Kalmanstunga. The plot is one similar to Bjarnar saga Hítdælakappa, two men fighting over a woman, the daughter of Þorsteinn of Borg (son of Egill Skallagrimsson). Although Gunnlaug's family held a chieftainsy in their own right it is evident from the saga that Þorsteinn was considered the real power in the district and Gunnlaugur actually went to Borg to become his retainer of sorts. This may reflect the political situation of the 13th century when small chieftains and local leaders were overshadowed by the great men, rulers of principalities and later the sheriffs, represented in the saga by Þorsteinn of Borg. Seeing Gunnlaugr as Þorstein's retainer may have appealed to Nikulas of Kalmanstunga. He was a man of obscure origins who owed his rise up the social ladder to his faithful services as a retainer to great men. He began his career attached to one of the lesser lords in Southern Iceland but in 1242 transferred to that man's brother-in-law, the rising Sturlung Þórðr kakali and became one of his leading retainers. As Þórðr gradually fought his way to a dominant position in Iceland, Nikulas's fortunes improved. He stayed in Norway with Þórðr during the winter of 1246-47 and probably became the king's courtier at that time. The next winter he was rewarded for his services by his marriage to Þorð's kinswoman, Gyða Sölmundardottir, Egill's of Reykholts sister and with her acquired a considerable wealth and the manor of Kalmanstunga. After this Nikulas enjoyed a similar position as his brother-in-law as leading member of the Borgarfjörður gentry but still an ardent follower of the Sturlung faction. He may not have been directly involved in the writing of Gunnlaugs saga but it seems likely that those who were, had a similar social position at a similar time in same area. These four sagas, as interpreted here, reflect closely the political developments in the Borgarfjörður district.

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