MEDIEVAL SCANDINAVIAN HISTORY WRITING

Consciousness of the Importance of Recording Historical Events

«It is many men´s opinion that to write about the settling of land in Iceland is knowledge of little importance, but we (the editors) believe that if we know with certainty the truth about our ancestors, then we may more easily counter the mockery of foreigners who claim that we descend from slaves and bandits.

And for those who wish to know ancient transmissions and how to trace clan lineages, it is better to start with the beginning than to enter in the middle.

In any case, all civilized nations wish to know about the origin of their own society and about the creation of their own clan.»

(Landnámabók)

The Historical Consciousness of the Heathen ancestors

Saxo_Grammaticus

About the historical consciousness of the Heathen ancestors, Saxo Grammaticus wrote:

«And I would not have it forgotten that the more ancient of the Danes, when any notable deeds of mettle had been done, were filled with emulation of glory, and imitated the Roman style; not only by relating in a choice kind of composition, which might be called a poetical work, the roll of their lordly deeds; but also by having graven upon rocks and cliffs, in the characters of their own language, the works of their forefathers, which were commonly known in poems in the mother tongue (…)

Moreover, how many histories must we suppose that men of such genius would have written, could they have had skill in Latin and so slaked their thirst for writing!

Men who though they lacked acquaintance with, the speech of Rome, were yet seized with such a passion for bequeathing some record of their history, that they encompassed huge boulders instead of scrolls, borrowing rocks for the usage of books.

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Nor may the pains of the men of Thule be blotted in oblivion; for though they lack all that can foster luxury (so naturally barren is the soil), yet they make up for their neediness by their wit, by keeping continually every observance of soberness, and devoting every instant of their lives to perfecting our knowledge of the deeds of foreigners. Indeed, they account it a delight to learn and to consign to remembrance the history of all nations, deeming it as great a glory to set forth the excellences of others as to display their own. (…)»

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About the historical consciousness of the Heathen ancestors, Snorri Sturluson wrote:

«Thjodolf of Hvin was the skald of Harald Harfager, and he composed a poem for King Rognvald the Mountain-high, which is called “Ynglingatal.” This Rognvald was a son of Olaf Geirstadaalf, the brother of King Halfdan the Black. In this poem thirty of his forefathers are [2] reckoned up, and the death and burial-place of each are given. He begins with Fjolner, a son of Yngvefrey, whom the Swedes, long after his time, worshipped and sacrificed to, and from whom the race or family of the Ynglings take their name.

Eyvind Skaldaspiller also reckoned up the ancestors of Earl Hakon the Great in a poem called “Haleygjatal,” composed about Hakon; and therein he mentions Sæming, a son of Yngvefrey, and he likewise tells of the death and funeral rites of each. The lives and times of the Yngling race were written from Thjodolf’s relation enlarged afterwards by the accounts of intelligent people.

As to funeral rites, the earliest age is called the Age of Burning; because all the dead were consumed by fire, and over their ashes were raised standing stones. But after Frey was buried under a cairn at Upsala, many chiefs raised cairns, as commonly as stones, to the memory of their relatives.

The Age of Cairns began properly in Denmark after Dan Milkillate had raised for himself a burial-cairn, and ordered that he should be buried in it on his death, with his royal ornaments and armour, his horse and saddle-furniture, and other valuable goods; and many of his descendants followed his example. But the burning of the dead continued, long after that time, to be the custom of the Swedes and Northmen. Iceland was occupied in the time that Harald Harfager was the King of Norway.

Burial-Mounds-Sweden-cemeteries-and-graveyards-905341_1920_1440

Ale's Stones, a megalithic monument in southern Sweden, resembles a stone ship built of 59 large sandstone boulders, weighing up to 1.8 tons each.

Ale’s Stones, a megalithic monument in southern Sweden, resembles a stone ship built of 59 large sandstone boulders, weighing up to 1.8 tons each.

There were skalds in Harald’s court whose poems the people know by heart even at the present day, together with all the songs about the kings who have [3] ruled in Norway since his time; and we rest the foundations of our story principally upon the songs which were sung in the presence of the chiefs themselves or of their sons, and take all to be true that is found in such poems about their feats and battles: for although it be the fashion with skalds to praise most those in whose presence they are standing, yet no one would dare to relate to a chief what he, and all those who heard it, knew to be a false and imaginary, not a true account of his deeds; because that would be mockery, not praise.»

The Medieval Self-Conscious Approach

About his own contemporary (early 13th century) approach as a chronicler, Saxo writes:

«In the footsteps of these poems, being as it were classic books of antiquity, I have trod; and keeping true step with them as I translated, in the endeavour to preserve their drift, I have taken care to render verses by verses; so that the chronicle of what I shall have to write, being founded upon these, may thus be known, not for a modern fabrication, but for the utterance of antiquity; since this present work promises not a trumpery dazzle of language, but faithful information concerning times past. (…)

Their stories, which are stocked with attestations of historical events, I have examined somewhat closely, and have woven together no small portion of the present work by following their narrative, not despising the judgment of men whom I know to be so well versed in the knowledge of antiquity. And I have taken equal care to follow the statements of Absalon, and with obedient mind and pen to include both his own doings and other men’s doings of which he learnt; treasuring the witness of his August narrative as though it were some teaching from the skies.»

Snorre_Sturluson-Christian_Krohg

About the historical approach of recent or contemporary Icelandic chroniclers and their sources, Snorri wrote:

«In this book I have had old stories written down, as I have heard them told by intelligent people, concerning chiefs who have held dominion in the northern countries, and who spoke the Danish tongue; and also concerning some of their family branches, according to what has been told me. Some of this is found in ancient family registers, in which the pedigrees of kings and other personages of high birth are reckoned up, and part is written down after old songs and ballads which our forefathers had for their amusement. Now, although we cannot just say what truth there may be in these, yet we have the certainty that old and wise men held them to be true.(…)

The priest Are Frode (the learned), a son of Thorgils the son of Geller, was the first man in this country who wrote down in the Norse language narratives of events both old and new. In the beginning of his book he wrote principally about the first settlements in Iceland, the laws and government, and next of the lagmen, and how long each had administered the law; and he reckoned the years at first, until the time when Christianity was introduced into Iceland, and afterwards reckoned from that to his own times.

To this he added many other subjects, such as the lives and times of kings of Norway and Denmark, and also of England; besides accounts of great events which have taken place in this country itself. His narratives are considered by many men of knowledge to be the most remarkable of all; because he was a man of good understanding, and so old that his birth was as far back as the year after Harald [4] Sigurdson’s fall. He wrote, as he himself says, the lives and times of the kings of Norway from the report of Od Kolson, a grandson of Hal of Sida.

Od again took his information from Thorgeir Afradskol, who was an intelligent man, and so old that when Earl Hakon the Great was killed he was dwelling at Nidarnes—the same place at which King Olaf Trygvason afterwards laid the foundation of the merchant town of Nidaros (i. e. Throndhjem) which is now there.

The priest Are came, when seven years old, to Haukadal to Hal Thorarinson, and was there fourteen years. Hal was a man of great knowledge and of excellent memory; and he could even remember being baptized, when he was three years old, by the priest Thangbrand, the year before Christianity was established by law in Iceland.

Are was twelve years of age when Bishop Isleif died, and at his death eighty years had elapsed since the fall of Olaf Trygvason. Hal died nine years later than Bishop Isleif, and had attained nearly the age of ninety-four years. Hal had traded between the two countries, and had enjoyed intercourse with King Olaf the Saint, by which he had gained greatly in reputation, and he had become well acquainted with the kingdom of Norway. He had fixed his residence in Haukadal when he was thirty years of age, and he had dwelt there sixty-four years, as Are tells us.

Teit, a son of Bishop Isleif, was fostered in the house of Hal at Haukadal, and afterwards dwelt there himself. He taught Are the priest, and gave him information about many circumstances which Are afterwards wrote down.

Are also got many a piece of information from Thurid, [5] a daughter of the gode Snorre. She was wise and intelligent, and remembered her father Snorre, who was nearly thirty-five years of age when Christianity was introduced into Iceland, and died a year after King Olaf the Saint’s fall. So it is not wonderful that Are the priest had good information about ancient events both here in Iceland, and abroad, being a man anxious for information, intelligent and of excellent memory, and having besides learned much from old intelligent persons. But the songs seem to me most reliable if they are sung correctly, and judiciously interpreted.»

Sources:

Saxo Grammaticus – Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes), the Preface, dating to ca. AD 1200 (For online text see: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1150/1150-h/1150-h.htm#link2H_PREF )

Snorri Sturluson – Heimskringla (The Sagas of the Norwegian Kings), dating to ca. AD 1225 (For online text see: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1703 )

Landnámabók (unknown authors)

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