Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
15.10.31, Jakobsson, A Sense of Belonging

The Medieval Review

15.10.31, Jakobsson, A Sense of Belonging

Old Norse kings' sagas are not as well known as they should be beyond a small group of specialists, and one of the great contributions of this book is to make their content, and thereby the form and function of vernacular historiography in medieval Iceland, more easily accessible to a wider audience. Jakobsson's work ought to succeed in bringing these sagas more into the mainstream of a broader, comparative understanding of medieval historiography. As this monograph demonstrates--and as readers can see for themselves through the excellent translations now available of most of the texts--studying the kings' sagas raises a range of questions regarding narrative technique, authorial perspective, the uses of the past, courtly or royal patronage of historical writing, cross-cultural influence among western European literatures, the relationships between oral and written forms of narrating the past, and medieval conceptions of history, truth, and authenticity--questions that have long captured the attention of scholarship devoted to historical narrative from other parts of Europe.

The sagas examined in this book are in the version presented by the earliest of the three compendia of kings' sagas, Morkinskinna (composed around 1220; hereafter Msk). (The other two, only slightly later compendia, covering much the same period, with a great deal of overlap of narrative material, are Heimskringla, attributed to Snorri Sturluson and the subject of most of the literary scholarship on kings' sagas until recently; and Fagrskinna.) Largely because of modern scholarly prejudices, Msk has long been neglected among literary scholars. It has a messy manuscript tradition, its narrative style has been considered excessively digressive and confused, there are too many narratives of Icelanders within the text, which have been seen as more or less clumsy interpolations (mainly because earlier scholars were unable to discern a clear function for such tales within what are supposed to be sagas about kings). Jakobsson effectively rescues Msk from these prejudices, in many respects building on (though also on certain points implicitly arguing against) the work of Theodore Andersson. [1]

Jakobsson has devoted much of his life to kings' sagas and to Msk: his first monograph was the first major literary study of these sagas as a genre, and remains one of the most important works of scholarship on them; and his second monograph of 2002 was devoted to Msk. In addition, he has recently has co-edited the text for the Íslenzk fornrit series. The book under review is, according to its publisher, a 'thoroughly revised and updated version of his previous books'; in fact it is essentially a translation from the Icelandic of his 2002 monograph, with very limited updating. Jakobsson's work (along with that of Andersson) is the most important scholarship on the kings' sagas; that it is now available in English is a great service to the wider community of scholars who might be interested in medieval Scandinavian historiography and lack the linguistic ability to engage with the most significant scholarship on it in Scandinavian languages.

Until around 1990, most work on Msk, and indeed on the kings' sagas in general, was devoted to source criticism: since all the compendia tell more or less the same stories, much energy was expended in trying to understand mutual interdependence and influence, as well as, especially in the case of Msk, the tangled relationships within the manuscript tradition. The first part of Jakobsson's book, devoted to a discussion of the origins of the text and the manuscripts in which it is contained, provides, at some length, a summary of the textual and source-critical scholarship on Msk; this is the one part of the book that I felt could have been greatly curtailed, or even omitted altogether. Jakobsson does not claim to be adding much that is new to the debate, and while there would have been some justification for such an extensive summary in the doctoral dissertation out of which the 2002 monograph emerged, given that there has been no new material added to the debate in the past decade, and that Theodore Andersson and Kari Ellen Gade published, in the introduction to their excellent translation of the text, a lengthy overview of the issues in English already in 2000, such a lengthy exposition in English is really now unnecessary.

Moving on to an analysis of the structure of Msk, Jakobsson rightly points out that the so-called 'digressions' are in fact the core of the saga; his useful discussion of research on other medieval narrative traditions is a reminder of how important and common non-linear, 'digressive' modes of narration were in the middle ages, bringing Msk within the ambit of a broader European tradition of historical narrative, where it rightfully belongs. Similar arguments have also, as he notes, been applied to the 'Sagas of the Icelanders', but this is the first time, to my knowledge, that such an analysis of narrative technique has been used for Msk, or indeed any of the kings' sagas. Thus Jakobsson arrives at the conclusion, persuasive to this reader at least, that this text is best understood as a multi-stranded narrative; and at the core of the many strands lie the short narratives known as þættir.

Þættir have had a controversial life in scholarship: they are generally brief narratives that appear to have little relation to the main thread of the text, and have thus been read as interpolations. They mostly record an Icelander and a Norwegian king (though other characters sometimes also have significant roles), and stress the importance of the Icelander--which has in the past been treated as a distraction from what many believed ought to be the focus of the narrative, the king. Jakobsson argues that in fact the narrative principle followed is that of amplification, in order to build up--and this is his central point--a multi-perspectival view of kings and kingship by showing the king interacting with individual retainers in a wide range of circumstances. Thus the þættir are central to the purpose of this text, since each one serves as an exemplum of kingly behaviour towards a retainer, and cumulatively the þættir create a multi-faceted examination of kingship itself. Of course, it is also the case that this is a specifically Icelandic text with an interest in retainers who are Icelanders: so the purpose of the text is not just to shed light on kings and kingship, but equally on the sometimes fraught relationships between Norwegian kings and Icelanders. The use of þættir also allows the text to handle these issues from multiple perspectives: those of the retainers as well as of the king, and on occasion, as Jakobsson argues, that of an external narrator.

This argument receives further elaboration in the next two parts of the text, the discussion of the society of the court, which naturally centres around the king, and Jakobsson's exposition of how Msk depicts individual identities and Icelandic identity through portraits of individual Icelanders. In his view, kings tend to receive positive portrayals, though never one-sidedly so. Icelanders appear in a variety of guises, ranging from advisor to the court to something approaching the role of a jester; but in each case their function is to show both how kings relate to their retainers (specifically Icelandic retainers) and how Icelanders shed light on what it means to be king.

As Jakobsson effectively shows, though there is a focus on king and retainer, the text is concerned also with depicting how these two roles are themselves performances of a range of social positions, and attempts to describe through these exempla some ideal of what a king and a retainer (and the relationship between them) ought to be. Each king and each retainer is an individual, but also an embodiment of 'a complex social phenomenon'; the key ingredient in their relationship is power and the right exercise of it (230). Each episode, and each narrative of each king, provides a different perspective on this issue, circling around what would be (from an Icelander's point of view) the best possible form of royal rule and relations with (Icelandic) retainers. Key aspects of good rule are magnanimity, generosity, patronage of Icelanders and their specific skills in storytelling and poetry, safeguarding and enlarging the property of the (primarily Norwegian) people, moderation in all aspects of behaviour, particularly the exercise of royal power, and the other traits conventionally associated with good rulership. Each depiction of one or more of these qualities is an example of how things could or should be; thus the narrative of Msk is ultimately a discourse on good kingship.

This is not itself surprising: most texts about kings in the middle ages are concerned, at least partially, with what it means to be a good king. What is most innovative is the coherence of the perspective of this text that emerges from Jakobsson's exposition. Nevertheless, readers might want to compare his reading with that of Andersson. Conventionally, because of its many narratives of Icelanders, Msk has been seen as a pro-Icelandic text, and therefore as one that takes a position opposed at least in some respects to the Norwegian monarchy. Andersson is the most cogent recent exponent of this view, suggesting that Msk consistently contrasts kings who stay at home and those who venture abroad, preferring the former. This is to be understood, in Andersson's view, in the context of a trade war between Norway and Iceland in the second decade of the thirteenth century, and the greater efforts at control being exercised by the Norwegian kings as they moved towards a more centralised form of monarchy. Here Andersson sees Msk as being quite distinct in its perspective on kingship from the two other, supposedly more pro-royal, compendia. Andersson’s arguments are also placed within a larger one regarding the chronology of Icelandic saga composition, with the kings' sagas representing a first stage in the evolution of literary genres that becomes more focused on Icelandic independence as that independence is progressively eroded. While Andersson’s interpretation is, of course, just that, and his chronological arguments are not susceptible to proof, his work nevertheless provides cogent counter-arguments to those given in Jakobsson's book, and it is a pity that more effort was not expended in engaging more carefully with them in this revised translation.

Overall, there is much to praise in this book. There are stimulating remarks on the text's attitude to historical truth and authenticity that ought to be used as a starting point for more detailed examination of these issues in all the kings' sagas. There are also useful (if somewhat cursory) observations on the relationship between verse and prose in the narrative that should stimulate further examination of the nature of Old Norse prosimetrical narrative. Jakobsson is at his best in close readings of the text, teasing out the ways in which social relations, individuals and behaviours are depicted, painting for us a vivid image of relations between Icelanders and Norwegians. Restoring Msk to its rightful place as something rather more than a clumsy mess of interpolations is the important task undertaken here; we now have a solid, well-argued, and comprehensive interpretation to work with and, if need be, argue against. Bringing this text into a comparative European framework is also a very valuable service, though in this respect, perhaps I might be allowed a few substantive criticisms.

The section on 'courtly' society in Msk is an excellent close reading of the text and the image of Norwegian society that we can build from it. It is an almost anthropological 'thick description' of the nature of the various rituals at the king's court, the ways in which relationships are negotiated through gesture, word, seating arrangements, vestments and deeds of various kinds, and tracks the court both in Norway and in its guise as the Varangian entourage of the Byzantine emperor. (It is a bit puzzling that with regard to the Varangians, this English version of an Icelandic monograph cites only Sigfús Blöndal's 1954 Icelandic text, Vaeringja Saga, not the later English translation by Benedikt Benedikz. [2]) There is also some discussion of relations between men and women, gender roles, and how, within a 'courtly' society, there was both value given to, and criticism of, supposedly 'feminine' customs (relating to dress, modes of speech, sensitivity, and tears) adopted by men at court, which were opposed to more 'male' virtues (violence and coarseness). While these are insightful, sometimes brilliant readings of the text, the theoretical perspectives they bring to bear are too vague and under-defined, and might have been better left out--or more rigorously argued.

Even more problematic is the fact that the references to this as 'courtly' society do not specify what differentiates such a society from any other kind of society beyond the fact that it takes place at the king's court; and the attempts at comparison with 'courtly' literature from other parts of Europe are to my mind rather weak, not least because they are based on cursory references to a limited ranged of scholarship, rather than actual textual comparison. 'Courtliness' is not defined here with adequate precision, and the theoretical baggage Jakobsson brings to the topic is almost exclusively taken from the work of Stephen Jaeger and Norbert Elias. While at least Jaeger's work is certainly fundamental to the subject, more could have been done on trying to understand just how the society depicted in Msk matches the sort of 'courtly' society that emerges from a reading of Old French, or Middle High German Arthurian romance (for example); to my mind, the worlds seem in many respects quite distinct. The relationship between ideal and reality, and the precise nature of chivalry and courtly culture, is something rather more hotly debated in the scholarship than one might think from Jakobsson's notes; more use might have been made of the works of, for example, Joachim Bumke in particular, or Richard Kaeuper or Matthew Strickland (the latter two are never cited)--particularly since this book does include some discussion of violence as an aspect of 'courtly culture.' [3]

Claims of influence from other literary traditions would also have benefitted from some genuinely rigorous comparison. To claim that 'in its form, style and substance Msk represents a distillation of south European aristocratic literature' (345) is on the face of it not objectionable in the least, though it is in the context of Scandinavianist scholarship a bold claim. It does, however, need to be supported by some close comparative readings of some of that southern literature and Msk to demonstrate precisely what is being distilled, and where, and how. This is not to say that I am opposed to the idea of non-native influence; far from it: I have argued myself that such influence needs to be taken seriously for the genre of kings' sagas as a whole, an argument partly influenced by reading these very suggestions of Jakobsson's in his 1997 and 2002 monographs. With regard to a volume published in 2014, though, I would hope that there would have been more of an effort to study and demonstrate the precise nature of that influence in this one text.

This book also stimulates a number of further questions that might have been addressed by being in turn stimulated by some work since 2002, namely on the place of Msk within its specific historical and cultural context as a bearer of Icelandic tradition about Norwegian kings. On a number of occasions Jakobsson stresses the association of Icelanders at court with the narration of stories and poems: 'with eloquence and poetic arts as their only weapons' (285), they have to find a place for themselves in the competitive world of court politics, and Icelanders have a particular cultural cachet in their command of the ancient art of skaldic verse, which, along with storytelling, is the perhaps the principal distinguishing marker of the 'courtliness' of the Icelanders. The narrative itself as a whole stresses 'the central importance of poetry in the construction of the Icelanders' self-identity' (297), not least because 'this work defines the role of Icelanders in Norway as more important to a sense of Icelandic nationality than their life in Iceland' (279), and that role is primarily a matter of composing and reciting verse and prose narratives.

Particularly given that there is indeed, in Jakobsson's book, some discussion both of what he calls 'King Hákon's cultural revolution' (320) (namely his patronage of chivalric romance from France), and of the way in which one Icelander, Snorri Sturluson, negotiated this by stressing his mastery of skaldic verse, it would have been useful if Jakobsson had engaged with Kevin Wanner's recent stimulating monograph on Snorri and the political and cultural role of this traditional form of poetry within this context. [4] Wanner argued that Snorri wished to stress his (and Icelanders') unique access to this form of 'cultural capital' as an alternative to the new kind of 'cultural capital' receiving patronage from Hákon; and I have myself suggested elsewhere that perhaps the form of the compendia is itself a reaction to changing cultural values at the Norwegian court, a new form of uniquely Icelandic 'cultural capital' that both demonstrates and asserts the value of Icelanders to that court through a particular form of prosimetrical story-telling about kings that is, as Jakobsson himself says with regard to Msk, 'new-fangled' (107). And in this context, given the importance of 'courtliness' for Jakobsson's argument and the contemporary cultural context of Hákon's 'revolution,' some textual comparison with the new cultural form of Old Norse romance as means of getting a better sense of the meaning of literary forms of 'courtliness' within this literary and historical context would also, I feel, have been a worthwhile direction in which an updating of this book could have been taken.

These are all, however, relatively minor quibbles, indicative more than anything else of the stimulation afforded by reading this book, and the hope that the questions raised will--especially now that they are available to a broader audience--result in further, more energetic efforts, on the part of more scholars, to provide answers. In having provided such a thorough interpretation of this text, Ármann Jakobsson has done us a great service, and the translation of this book is greatly to be welcomed; 'A Sense of Belonging' belongs on the shelf of every library aiming to serve the serious study not just of Old Norse literature, but also of medieval European historiography.



1. Many of his most important contributions have been revised and collected in The Partisan Muse in the Early Icelandic Sagas (1200-1250), Islandica, 55 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012); see further Andersson, The Growth of the Medieval Icelandic Sagas (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), which also contains much that is relevant for a study of Msk.

2. Sigfús Blöndal and Benedikt S. Benedikz, The Varangians of Byzantium (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).

3. Joachim Bumke, Courtly Culture: Literature and Society in the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Matthew Strickland, War and Chivalry: The Conduct and Perception of War in England and Normandy, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, Fourth Series, 33 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

4. Kevin J. Wanner, Snorri Sturluson and the Edda: The Conversion of Cultural Capital in Medieval Scandinavia, Toronto Old Norse-Icelandic Studies, 4 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).