Geraldine Barnes

title.none: Andersson and Gade, trans., Morkinskinna (Barnes )

identifier.other: baj9928.0105.006 01.05.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Geraldine Barnes , University of Sydney,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Andersson, Theodore and Kari Ellen Gade, transs. Morkinskinna: The Earliest Icelandic Chronicle of the Norwegian Kings (1030-1157). Islandica, Vol. LI. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 553. $65.00. ISBN: 0-801-43694-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.05.06

Andersson, Theodore and Kari Ellen Gade, transs. Morkinskinna: The Earliest Icelandic Chronicle of the Norwegian Kings (1030-1157). Islandica, Vol. LI. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. vii, 553. $65.00. ISBN: 0-801-43694-x.

Reviewed by:

Geraldine Barnes
University of Sydney

This first translation of the Old Icelandic Morkinskinna into any language is a splendid volume by two fine scholars. The Morkinskinna ('the rotten parchment') manuscript, so named by the seventeenth-century scholar Thormodus Torfæus, was delivered as a gift from the Icelandic Bishop Brynjolfur Sveinsson to King Frederick III of Denmark in 1662. It marks, as Theodore Andersson and Kari Ellen Gade point out in the opening sentence of their Preface, "the birth of a full-scale royal chronicle in a Scandinavian vernacular". Morkinskinna consists of a compendium of short Icelandic narratives, probably composed around 1220, about the kings of Norway from 1030-1157. Now held in the Royal Library Copenhagen (as Gamle kongelige samling 1009 fol.), dotted with lacunae, missing one of its eight quires and defective at the end, Morkinskinna was written in Iceland and dates from around the end of the thirteenth century. The work is generally assumed to derive from a no longer extant text of Norwegian regnal history which is known as the "Oldest Morkinskinna". Morkinskinna contains one of the best known stories in Old Icelandic literature, Audnar thattr, and a large proportion of its narrative is devoted to the swashbuckling exploits and challenging encounters with Icelanders by one of medieval Scandinavia's most fascinating kings, Haraldr Hardradi ("hard-rule") Sigurdarson, whose attempted invasion of England in 1066 was thwarted at the Battle of Stamford Bridge three weeks before the Battle of Hastings. Perhaps tainted by its unfortunate sobriquet, Morkinskinna has, as a whole, been ignored by modern scholars. Nevertheless, as Gabriel Turville-Petre argued nearly fifty years ago: "[t]he author...of the Morkinskinna could tell many secrets about the history of Icelandic literature." "Scholars," he went on to say, "have not yet given this book the attention it deserves and little is yet known about the author's sources and methods" (Origins of Icelandic Literature 1953, 217).

The publication of Andersson and Gade's English translation, Morkinskinna: The Earliest Icelandic Chronicle of the Norwegian Kings (1030-1157), goes a long way both to remedy that scholarly deficiency and to reveal some of those secrets of Icelandic literary history . No normalized or annotated edition of Morkinskinna yet exists. Its only scholarly editions, by C.R. Unger in 1867; by Finnur Jonsson in 1928-32; and, in facsimile, by Jon Helgason in 1934, have largely confined themselves to the text. In addition to their excellent translation, which incorporates both an edition into Old Icelandic and a translation into English by Gade of Morkinskinna's numerous skaldic stanzas, the authors go well beyond the modestly stated aims of their Preface, "to provide the necessary background in notes and lay out questions for future scholars". What they offer is a wide-ranging study of Morkinskinna which situates the work in its textual, literary, and historical context and charts its treatment at the hands of modern scholarship, which has, in the main, considered it only of secondary or relative interest to other redactions of sagas of the kings of Norway. This book makes Morkinskinna widely accessible to medieval scholars and, for Norse specialists, demands a re- evaluation of the development of historical composition in medieval Iceland.

Prefaced by a description of the Morkinskinna manuscript and an account of its textual relations with fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts containing Morkinskinna material, such as Heimskringla and Fagrskinna, the Introduction focusses on the problematic issues of Morkinskinna's written and oral sources and its presumed interpolations in skaldic poetry and in prose. The kings' stories of Morkinskinna are, Andersson and Gade note, less biographical and more episodic than those of Fagrskinna and Heimskringla and are punctuated by some forty narrative digressions, which foreground the interaction of Norwegian kings and Icelanders. Among the likely 'native' sources and interpolations which they consider are the A:grip, a history of the kings of Norway; a version of Knytlinga saga, a compilation about the kings of Denmark; Eirikr Oddsson's no longer extant Norwegian history Hryggjarstykki; and many of the thaettir and skaldic stanzas which are embedded in the work. The 'poetic corpus' of Morkinskinna receives extensive scrutiny here, with a saga-by-saga analysis of the varied narrative and rhetorical functions of its skaldic stanzas. The stanzas in the "Saga of Haraldur [Sigurdarson] and Magnus" (Morkinskinna chs. 1- 52) which are also common to Fagrskinna and Heimskringla, for example, manifest a pattern of verifying events of the narrative, whereas those exclusive to Morkinskinna tend to recapitulate them. Those stanzas associated with battles in the "Saga of Magnus berfoettr" (Morkinskinna, chs. 55-59) which are not found in Heimskringla serve a similar function to the battle stanzas in the "Saga of Haraldur [Sigurdarson] and Magnus", whereas stanzas on love and sailing in Magnus's saga appear to be personal authorial reflections. Overall, Andersson and Gade conclude, the Morkinskinna author's use of skaldic stanzas is indicative of a greater authorial interest in narrative itself than in historical fact. Their consideration of Morkinskinna's oral source material -- which includes six "source men", among them Haraldr Hardradi, who are identified in the text, along with more general evidence of oral tradition, such as references to stories circulating about individual kings and comments about why the memory of particular incidents has been preserved -- leads them to conclude that the structure of Morkinskinna supports a process of composition which has been postulated for the Icelandic Family Sagas, namely "an oral tradition comprising disconnected episodes, which were not necessarily joined in a prior tradition" (64).

Moving from the work's literary to its political-historical context, Andersson and Gade bring a fresh and persuasively argued perspective to Morkinskinna scholarship with their contention that the emphasis of much of the work on royal Norwegian dealings with Icelanders ("No other book about the Norwegian kings gives such attention to the Icelandic presence in Norwegian history" [78]) lends it "an Icelandic assertiveness". (65) This Icelandic stamp has its stimulus, they suggest, in the series of commercial disputes between Norway and Iceland during 1215-1220 which culminated in the considered despatch of force to Iceland by the Norwegian regent, Earl Skuli. An underlying categorization in Morkinskinna of Norwegian rulers to the year 1130 as "peaceable" (Magnus gódi, Olafr kyrri, Eysteinn Magnusson) or "adventurer" (Haraldr hardradi, Magnus berfoettr, Sigurdur jorsalafari), and an apparent preference for the former over the latter, reflects, they assert, these Norwegian-Icelandic tensions in the years immediately preceding the composition of Morkinskinna.

Although efforts to locate the place of composition of Morkinskinna have thus far proved inconclusive, Andersson and Gade build on their analysis of the work's political stance to reinforce the nomination, originally made in 1925 by Eivind Kvalen, of the monastery of Munkathvera in Eyjafjordr, in the west of Iceland. Carefully assembling evidence of Morkinskinna's bias towards the peaceable and diplomatically adroit King Ingi Haraldsson (d. 1161), they suggest that the long-standing affiliation with Munkathvera of the family of Thorvardr Thorgeirsson, the most prominent chieftain in Eyjafjordr and loyal retainer of Ingi, provides a substantial political clue to the provenance of the work. Morkinskinna, they postulate, is likely to have found its inspiration in a family like Thorvardr's, and although the identity of its author remains elusive, it may well have been "an Icelander with a powerful sense of his own national and individual heritage who spent time in royal service, absorbed the appropriate ethic, but at the same time experienced the strain between self and service that inheres in such a position". (80)

Andersson and Gade admirably succeed in demonstrating the pivotal position of Morkinskinna as a work which is revolutionary in its establishment of a new literary form, the historical compendium, and in its broadening of the geographical and political dimensions of Icelandic narrative. As they put it with a zesty flourish: "[w]hatever came before Morkinskinna looks parochial by comparison, and whatever came afterward was obliged to take the wider parameters into account". (83) Morkinskinna, in their view, serves as the ultimate model for later, better known, and more highly regarded compilations, such as Sturlunga saga and Hauksbok.

The impact of this monumental work of scholarship will extend well beyond the modest goal stated in the Preface: to secure for Morkinskinna "the wider circulation that it surely deserves". (x) A new edition of Morkinskinna would be a fitting tribute to the achievement of Andersson and Gade, who have already gone a long way to provide much of the scholarly apparatus which such an undertaking would ideally encompass: textual notes; explanatory notes which go well beyond the "bare minimum of information" (ix) claimed for them by the translators; notes on stanzas; maps of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, the British Isles and Ireland; comprehensive bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Gade's edition of the skaldic verses has, as the bookjacket states, provided "a substantial initial step toward a future edition of the Icelandic text". It is to be hoped that this volume will provide the impetus for that undertaking.