Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Bishops' Sea: Getting Diplomatic

Arnarstarpi on Snaefellsnes By The original uploader was Reykholt at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0,

I assume that the village of Arnarstapi has the best view of the spectacular cone of Snaefellsjokul, at the tip of the Snaeffellsnes peninsula,. At least. this photograph is far more impressive than the one that illustrates the article for Helgafell,the place where Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir is said to have been buried, and, where, more importantly, the medieval monastery of Helgafell was located. It seems at least likely that both the Flateyjarbok and the Skaholtsbok were produced at Helgafell; although even if not they were both produced in the diocese of Skalholt a generation before. This makes the Helgafell scriptorium the only source for one of the two Vinland Sagas (The Greenlanders' Saga), and probably one of only two sources for the Saga of Erik the Red along with the Hauksbok of approximately a century before.

The issue here is that the Vinland Sagas are often treated as transparent historical sources, even when the skeptical conclusion is that they are useless sources. Yet we owe the foundations of the modern historical method to these same scriptoria and in this same era, as they checked and tested the production of rival scriptoria for the key ecclesiastical purpose of settling real estate disputes. This study of diplomatics seems to have skipped right over the Vinland Sagas, which seems a little odd, all things considered. Fortunately it turns out that "seems" is doing a great deal of work, and in a light blogging week before I get on with postblogging technology for May of 1950 it is worth exploring these studies. 

This is very much a problem-oriented inquiry. The heroine Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir appears in a prominent role in both sagas, albeit more so in the Greenlanders' Saga. She is the mother of Snorri Thorfinnson, and ended her life as the wife of a very prominent chieftain, giving her the means to make a pilgrimage to Rome and to endow, it seems, a convent. While the Greenlandic characters in the two sagas are somewhat obscure, Gudrid is a well known figure who appears in the genealogy of the editor/patron of the Hauksbok, Hauk Elendsson.* She is the grandmother and great-grandmother of a number of early Icelandic bishops, not surprisingly considering her son's leading role in the Christianisation of the island. Given all of this, it seems reasonable that the convent that claimed Gudrid as a patroness would promote her history and seek her beatification by producing a hagiography; and, given that, one's attention is drawn to the Vinland Sagas, and especially the Geenlanders' Saga, as a possible outcome of that effort. 

Moreover, the genealogical descent of the legendary founder of Greenland, Erik the Red, is for the most part extremely obscure. This is all the odder considering that Gudrid has a tangential connection with the family, having been briefly married to Erik's second on. Surely over four centuries some other descendants followed the path back to Iceland, and are worthy of mention somewhere in the Saga of Erik the Red? And yet the closest we come to it is Freydis Eriksdottir, who appears in the Greenlanders' Saga as a foil to Gudrid, making her own voyages to Vinland, where she is involved in dark and bloody work. The saga predicts through the mouth of Leif Erikson, that "her descendants will not get on in the world." In the post-predictive world of the literary prophecy, that has to mean that there are traditions about Freydis' descendants. Making an enormous leap, I've sometimes wondered if those descendants are figurative, and that we might be seeing hints of a rivalry between religious institutions. There were, after all, several convents and monasteries in Greenland, of which we know precisely nothing. 

So that's the problem: Whether the production of the sagas might tell us something about long-dissolved religious communities that might have claimed ownership of the Vinland story in the late 1300s. I'm not sure how far current saga diplomatics gets me down this quixotic path, but it is certainly time to explore the state of the art!

(Yes, yes, we all know that Gudrun was actually movie sex goddess Slithey Tove, then under contract to Climactic Pictures, but what are you going to do?)

An extremely schematic history of Icelandic literature begins with a presumed first generation of Latin writing, none of which survive. These  that the context for the earliest Icelandic grammatical text and a collection of biographies and genealogies of the founders of the Icelandic settlement attributed to a apical founder of Icelandic literature, Ari the Wise. The First Grammarian might have written about 1125, while Ari the Wise's dates are given as 1067--1148. In the century after Ari, Icelandic scholarship produces a version of a more comprehensive history of the foundation, the Landnahmbok, leading up to the ouevre of Snorri Sturluson (1179--1249), who worked on a collection of king's epics and a complication of Norse mythology (as well as some wisdom texts) that together form a kind of literary prolegomena to the confusing Icelandic civil war(s?) of the Age of the Sturlungs. With that period behind them, Icelandic literature turned to "historical" sagas. The Hauk's book marks the earliest years of that period, the Skalholtsbok the last. Thereafter the field remained somewhat fallow until the discovery a century later that the Vinland Sagas might prove that the Vikings beat Columbus. At this point, while Icelandic literature was pretty much moribund, we can trace the era of taking it seriously as historical sources, and for much more than just Vinland. (Snorri has only very recently been banished as credible source for medieval Scottish and Norwegian history.)

Hauk Erlendsson isn't, and can't be, the father of the Vinland Sagas. Not only do we not know whether the sagas  had taken shape before him, but Erik the Red shows up very briefly in Ari the Wise, while the existence of Vinland is independently confirmed by Adam of Bremen. But he may well be the father of the Saga of Erik the Red. Hauk himself is something of a cipher for Sverrir Jakobsson, who is more interested in the manuscript, but there is still something to be said about the man. Hauk was an Icelander of prominent family, notwithstanding a residual scandal over his possible illegitimacy, and rose to be lawspeaker/lawman of Iceland, a post he left in 1299 to enter the service of the King of Norway, presumably Erik II Magnusson (1268--1299). Considering that both the Flateyjarbok and the Skalholtsbok version of the Saga of Erik the Red were produced during the reign of Erik of Pomerania, I wonder how accidental any of this is.  In Norway, he appears several times between 1300 and 1334 as a prominent legal advocate, sometimes as a member of the Oslo and Gula Things, sometimes as lawspeaker of the latter; as a member of the king's council; and, finally and most momentously, as one of the legalists who ruled in favor of the accession of Magnus IV of Sweden as King of Norway in 1319. 

The surviving portions of the Hauksbok contain the following works:

AM 371 4to[edit]

  1. (1r-14v): Landnámabók
  2. (15r-18v): Kristni saga

AM 544 4to[edit]

  1. (1r-14v): encyclopaedic information drawn from various sources, on geography, natural phenomena, and Biblical stories
  2. (15r-19v): encyclopaedic information drawn from various sources, on philosophy and theology
  3. (20r-21r): Völuspá
  4. (22r-33v): Trójumanna saga
  5. (34r): a text called 'Seven Precious Stones And Their Nature'
  6. (35v): Cisiojanus (a versified Latin enumeration for remembering the church festivals throughout the year)
  7. (36r-59r): Breta sögur, including Merlínússpá
  8. (60r-68v): two dialogues between the soul and the body
  9. (69r-72v:9): Hemings þáttr Áslákssonar
  10. (72v:9-76v): Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks
  11. (77r-89v:35): Fóstbrœðra saga
  12. (89v:35-93r:17): Algorismus
  13. (93r:17-101v:24): Eiríks saga rauða
  14. (101v:25-104v:17): Skálda saga
  15. (104v:18-105r:21): Af Upplendinga konungum
  16. (105r:21-107v): Ragnarssona þáttr
  17. (107v): Prognostica Temporum

AM 675 4to[edit]

  1. Elucidarius

Hauk's version of the Landnamabok is somewhat different from the others, and its positioning as the prequel to the story of the conversion of Iceland makes it explicitly a historical introduction --or, perhaps, the work to be developed and justified by the following texts. Jakobsson is somewhat diffident about the "encyclopaedic" character of the next two entries, but gives way in the end. While not modern encyclopaedias, they meet the requirements of the medieval tradition nearly enough, and seem to be intended as textbooks for young "clericals," including secular lawyers like Hauk as well as churchmen. The Volupsa is positioned as a curiosity from pagan times, but insofar as the Hauksbook is about constructing the Icelandic identity, it might conceivably be doing more work than that. (4) Is a contribution to the "matter of Troy," assigning the Norwegians their own set of Trojan ancestors, led by a mythical and euhemeristic "King Odin." It also gives Hauk a chance to meditate on the distinction between secular and religious history, and to construct a world view in which the Middle East is the centre of the world, and in which Norwegians are linked to that centre by a series of northward and westward migrations. The Breta is a free translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of Britain, while the appended work is Gunnlaugr Liefsson's translation of Geoffrey's Prophecy of Merlin. Gunnlaugr (d. 1218/19) was a monk at Iceland's most eminent monastery, Thingeyraklaustur, and wrote extensively in Latin and Old Norse. He seems to have been involved in a campaign to beatify Bishop Jon Ogmundsson, while his Norse style and subjects was influential on Snorri Sturluson. The choice of historical sagas that follow is a bit obscure, although the first is linked to Hauk's grand historical narrative, while Jacobsson points out that the Fostbroethra Saga has a section set in Greenland, and reflects Hauk's interest in Greenland, perhaps because it is a freestanding signifier of exile and lawlessness in medieval Icelandic literature. A series of scientific papers continue the Hauksbok's encylcopediac theme, while the last two historical sagas may conceivably be intended as exemplar texts for future monarchs;
Can't get enough of Ragnar Hairy Breeches!

although the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok is largely set in Britain and might conceivably be a comment or extension of Monmouth. 

The Flateyjarbok is the largest and most impressive of medieval Icelandic manuscripts. A colophon indicates that it was produced by two priests, Jón Þórðarson and Magnús Þórhallsson, the latter definitely linked to Helgafell. The work of the two scribes is easily distinguished. This is all the more interesting considering that it was produced in the midst of an emergent dynastic crisis in Norway and also Iceland, by this time a Norwegian dependency. The nominal king of Norway and Denmark, Olaf, was a minor. His sudden death at 17 in 1387 left his mother, Margaret, as ruling regent without a king for whom to be regent. The resulting crisis of legitimacy led to civil war in Sweden and could easily have resulted in the overthrow of Margaret's regime. Instead she was able to adopt her great-nephew, Boguslav, who was crowned King of Norway as Erik of Pomerania, in 1389.  The book itself is clearly the product of a major scriptorium, wherever it is located. The two compilers needed access to at least forty manuscripts to produce it. 

Elizabeth Ashman Rowe observes that Olafur Halldorson argued that the Flateyjarbok was originally conceived as a "Prince's Mirror" for Olaf. This would make the "original" Flateyjarbok of Father Jón Þórðarson a bound edition of the Sagas of King Olaf Trygvasson and St. Olaf for presentation to young King Olaf. Subtle! Þórðarson incorporates "stories" --the lesser sagas-- into the larger, conflated "Olaf" saga" as they bear on the story he is trying to tell. Rowe goes on to argue that the emendation and extension of the manuscript by Father Magnus is a window into Iceland's response to the ongoing crisis. The new stories are comments on the old, and The Greenlanders' Saga is a comment on some "matter of Greenland," of which more below, material in Þórðarson.  Unfortunately, she does so in a limited circulation monograph that costs an arm and a leg on Amazon and would require a week or two for a specialty reseller to scare up.

So with university libraries being closed since forever and copies of her somewhat special interest monograph going for an arm and a leg on Amazon. What I have instead is Rowe on Þórðarson on Olaf Trygvasson. Fortunately for our interest in The Greenlanders' Saga specifically, Father Magnus has his own editorial criteria that can be read as in dialogue with those that Father Þórðarson employs in treating the  Saga of Olaf TrygvassonÞórhallsson seeming to have a more historically minded approach that frames the stories he tells with a set of annals and an introductory text translated from Adam of Bremen, I have very little to say, as further exploration of  Þórhallsson's intervention is unfortunately left for the monograph.

Þórðarson's "typological" themes are clear enough. He uses the framework of salvation history to explore the relationship between Iceland and Norway, finding a way to argue that Icelandic notables should be rewarded with money and office for not being more unruly than they are. The monetary relationship is that between Iceland and the city of Bergen, which has a monopoly on the Icelandic trade that allows the Norwegian crown to collect a 5% tax. The question of office is the issue of "paternity" implied in the title. The Icelandic notability remain acutely status-conscious and concerned to correct the impression that they are descended from slaves. This takes us back to the foundation narrative, in which Iceland's settlement is undertaken by Norwegian nobles driven out by the tyranny of Harald Fairhair, and not by a mix of "papars," Norwegians, Norse-Gaels and Gaels. I suspect, however, that it is the precarious position of the chiefly clans at the head of Icelandic society that matters a great deal more, for very good reason. If, as Patricia Boulhosa seems now to be suggesting, the relationship between Iceland and the Norwegian-Danish crown was hashed out in this formative period and then projected back onto the original settlement of 1262, we can see that the history of Icelandic notables and their relationship with the crown is very much in contention in the 1380s! (I am very grateful for Sverrir Jackobsson's excellent review of Boulhasa's Icelanders and the Kings of Norway, as otherwise the Saga-Book upload with the review of Rowe, Flateyjarbok would have left me with a lot of slogging for something that boils down to "big book about big book.") 

This leaves the Skalholtsbok, produced in the mid-fifteenth century and available only in substantially damaged fragments. The fragments include a complete Saga of Erik the Red, which modern editors prefer to the one in the Hauksbok, and a number of minor, romantic sagas. Insofar as current scholarship bears on it, it seems like the Skalholtsbok is concerned with the development of Icelandic law. This, if I am drawing a correct inference, is a clear line of development from the Hauksbok, although it is not at once obvious what the Vinland Sagas have to do with that. Both Hauk and Þórðarson are interested in the retainers who fought alongside Olaf Trygvasson. Making the case that they deserve "office" seems to require taking the heroes off to Greenland, where they can exhibit a talent and taste for violence that  can't be exercised in the wider world, even that of the sagas. 

All of this I have from Jonathan Grove, who is willing to tackle the whole "Matter of Greenland" in the sagas. It turns out that Icelanders, or at least the chiefly literati, are entirely uninterested in Greenland as a thing in itself, being mostly concerned with it as a mirror to Iceland. Greenland is marginalised at the edge of the world, or even beyond it, considering all of the eldritch things that happen there. Greenland's marginality then pushes Iceland towards the centre, scratching a not-exclusively Icelandic itch. That marginality does not, however, place Greenland to the west. The Icelandic literature occasionally dallies with the idea of a westward Translatio, and in order not to concede too much to Greenland forces it onto a north-and-south axis, with Greenland wrapping around to Scandinavia in the far north, and . Vinland perhaps an African island. (An interesting reversal of the desire to make Maghrebi stories about Atlantic adventures east-west instead of north-south.) 

As Greenland is marginal, so it is beyond the law, but in a strange way in which the landtaking of Erik the Red, the conversion of Lief Eriksson and the submission to Norwegian rule by an anonymous collective of Greenlanders all proceed without difficulty. In the same way, the storm-tossed voyages that take Icelanders to Greenland have no parallels on the return voyage. A girl may be carried away from Snaefellsnes to the desolate shore of eastern Greenland when the ice floe she is playing on, breaks away, but her return to Iceland goes almost without comment. This is probably because it is Greenland's job to provide a setting and some kind of commentary-of-place on Icelanders' adventures, and that most definitely includes our little holy family of Thorfinn, Gudrun and Snorri. 

Which brings me to this document from an online depository that manages to strip away author and date from "Iceland's 'Foreign' Bishops and the Icelanders." (Probably Michael Frost of the University of Aberdeen.)** Depending on whether you count  Jón skalli Eiríksson, Bishop of Holar (1358--1390),  Iceland was subject to "foreign" bishops from either 1358 or 1382/3 to 1460, after which the dioceses resumed electing their own bishops, who were then confirmed at Trondheim. 

Frost doesn't like to include  Jón skalli, especially considering that it seems to have been his nephew's accession that marks the end of the period of foreign domination, but I can't help noticing that he was translated to Holar from Gardar. One of the articles I've read in the last week even has some additional details, pointing out that  Jón skalli's appointment was very controversial, and not accepted until after an extended examination of his credentials, the thought being that he had skipped out of the less remunerative Gardar and was thrusting himself on Holar instead. Talk about diplomatics! 

The core "foreign" bishops are papal appointees in lieu of the Archbishop of Nidaros, which is interesting and beckons me further into late medieval Church politics than I frankly want to go. This does however mask a significant difference between bishops appointed by the Pope at the behest of Scandinavian monarchs, and others who seem to have had their place purchased by English, probably East Anglian, fishing interests. The first foreign bishop, Michael Magnusson, Bishop of Skalholt from 1382 to 1387, seems particularly relevant to the production of the Flateyjarbok, since he seems to have dismissed a significant number of clerics, including  "Þorgerðr, Abbess of Kirkjubær," which is as close as this post is going to come to anything like a candidate convent for Gudrun's patronage. Having done the dirty work, Bishop Michael was succeeded by Bishop Peter "the Mild." Towards the end of Peter's episcopate the English fishers arrived in force, in 1410, assisted by an English appointment to Holar, . Providing the Icelandic notability with a ready market for provisions and a possible means of avoiding the Bergen monopoly, on the one hand, and intruding the disorder and violence of the plantation fishers on the other, the English advent set the scene for the appointment of Árni Óláfsson as Bishop of Skalholt and governor of Iceland, a combined office that seems a bit fishy to me. Arni "bankrupted the diocese" with his generosity, and was removed in 1423.

By 1426, both dioceses were vacant. Pope Martin proceeded to appoint an English monk named John Craxton to Holar, while  Jón Gerreksson, a member of the Swedish grand noblesse, such as it was, went to Skalholt. Bishop Jón was lynched in 1433, by the Icelandic notables, perhaps encouraged and assisted by Bishop Craxton, notwithstanding a more romantic story about it. Pope Eugene translated Craxton to Holar and appointed another English bishop to replace him at Skalholt, but these appointments became irrelevant after Trondheim, the King and the Icelandic notability arrived at some satisfactory compromise, the details of which have not been recorded. (Unless they were the laws and settlements attributed to 1265.) 

Not to be too cynical about what's going on here, Erik of Pomerania introduced the Sound Tolls in 1429, after which the Pope would have been well-advised to place the needs of the Danish monarchy above those of any East Anglian fishing magnate.  From this point on, production of saga literature dwindles away very quickly and is replaced by the usual European parochial literary activity, evidently mainly in Latin. I am strongly tempted to uproot the saga era as a whole and impose it bodily on the era of the "Foreign Bishops." The Hauksbok is an inconveniently early work for this thesis, but given Hauk Elendsson's role in establishing the relationship between the Norwegian crown, the archbishopric of Nidaros/Trondheim, and Iceland, it isn't inexplicably so. 

So the conclusion here, after much faffing around, isn't that the Vinland Sagas shouldn't be taken seriously as historical works. I think that boat has pretty much sailed. But I do think I've reinforced my argument that "Erik the Red's landtaking" isn't historical, either, and that the Greenland settlement is more likely to  have looked like the modern "settlement" of Greenland, in which local Inuit picked up farming from a small number of missionary/settlers. The reason that the Icelanders don't tell this story is that they don't give a shit about what happened in early Greenland, and quite probably don't know. They're making it up, for good reason.

Sure would be nice to know more about Icelandic convents, though!

In the mean time, there's been far too much text without a soothing picture, and this one deserves a rerun. 


*I'm sure that using proper Icelandic orthography@ is a very valuable exercise that has nothing to do with maintaining Icelandic amour propre and I've cut-and-pasted where it seemed exigent. Unfortunately, using it consistently would involve converting back in many cases with much use of special keyboards, and about doubles composition time. To make it worse, Anglosphere writers don't normally read West Scandinavian languages and do not know the case rules for adding and dropping an"r" ending to old Norse personal names. Given that English has its own case structure, and considering that this is only a blog post  I'm exercising my discretion. You're going to see "Hauk," not "Haukr."

**Needless to say that that's a pretty  careless thing to do, and especially hard to forgive considering that the online depository seems to be run by the University of Aberdeen. That's how "early career scholars" turn into "independent researchers."
@ This cut and paste from the blurb on Rowe needs no comment: "FlateyjarbÃ?Â?Ã?Â3k is the name given to GKS 1005 fol., a manuscript now housed at the Ã?Â?Ã?Â?rni MagnÃ?Â?Ã?°sson Institute (Stofnun Ã?Â?Ã?Â?rna MagnÃ?Â?Ã?°ssonar Ã?Â?Ã?¡ Ã?Â?Ã? slandi) ."

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