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18.01.01, Sigurðsson, Viking Friendship

18.01.01, Sigurðsson, Viking Friendship

There has been no lack of scholarly studies pointing out that the bilateral nature of kinship in Viking Age and early Christian Scandinavia made it ill-suited to be the basis of stable groupings for the exercise of social and political power. Nevertheless, the old romantic notion of Viking-Age Scandinavia as a kin-based society remains influential, especially in texts for the general public. One reason for this situation may be that historians have been more consistent in denouncing the old notion than in proposing a new interpretation with which to replace it. The author of this book has set out to remedy that deficiency.

Jón Viðar Sigurðsson is an Icelandic historian who is currently a professor of medieval history at the University of Oslo, Norway. He is the author of numerous important studies of the period, in which he has notably given much attention to the less studied last centuries of Icelandic autonomy before the island's final submission to the Norwegian King in the early 1260s. As the book's title indicates, the author sees friendship as the most important social bond in Viking Age and early Christian Scandinavia--not friendship in its more private and sentimental modern sense, but friendship as a powerful and public social bond. It might express political alliances between equals within the aristocracy, but even more important, it constituted and defined the relationship between aristocratic chieftains and their lesser dependents. He does not deny that kinship was important, too, but he argues that the multifaceted and unstable kinship relations in a bilateral kinship system did not gain real social and political force unless strengthened by public friendship.

In other words, Jón Viðar Sigurðsson's analysis of Old Norse society describes it as one dominated by patron-client relationships, a phenomenon that is ubiquitous in all parts of the world, and at relevant points, he cites international ethnological scholarship on the topic. The argument is convincing, not least because the author is able to base it on a unique set of sources: the Icelandic family sagas. Although these texts were not committed to writing until the thirteenth century, and many details are likely to be later accretions, the picture they convey of early Icelandic society has a sufficient number of systematic differences from the society depicted by the so-called contemporary sagas about the island's history in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries for most scholars to consider them as based upon credible tradition. Nowhere else in Europe do we possess a literature describing tenth- and eleventh-century society with such vividness.

Although the Icelandic sagas supply the major part of the author's evidence, he has extended his study by including the sagas of Norwegian kings from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. Contemporary European notions of the king as God's steward on earth meant that the relationship between the king and his subjects was in some respects fundamentally different from that between Icelandic chieftains and their allies and dependents; yet, especially the almost continuous struggles for the Norwegian throne from the 1130s to 1240 meant that in many situations the practices of public friendship can be shown to have had a direct bearing on the course of events, until the defeat and death of Earl Skule in 1240 ensured the final victory of hereditary monarchy by the grace of God.

That victory also set the Norwegian king free to interfere much more actively in internal Icelandic politics, resulting in the island's ultimate submission in the 1260s. However, even before that new development, Icelandic political society had undergone substantial change. In the tenth and early eleventh centuries, Iceland probably counted fifty-some autonomous chieftaincies, but competition between the chieftains gradually reduced their number by concentrating power in ever fewer hands. By the early thirteenth century, the number of chieftaincies had been reduced to seven. Such a development had evident consequences for the nature of the relationship between the chieftains and their dependents. Whereas in the earlier period, the common householder had been fairly free to transfer his allegiance from one chieftain to another, by the early thirteenth century, the dominance of the remaining chieftains tended to be defined territorially, leaving the ordinary householder no option but to adhere to the chieftain in whose sphere of power he was living. Furthermore, the growing wealth of Icelandic ecclesiastical institutions, especially the two episcopal sees and ten monastic houses, resulted in formerly independent householders becoming tenants of the Church, making abbots and particularly bishops autonomous participants in Iceland's power struggles. Although fiefs and vassals were never introduced in Iceland, the island's society was acquiring a distinctly "feudal" flavour. Jón Viðar Sigurðsson shows how these developments were accompanied by the growth of communal forms of organization to replace the formal bonds of friendship with chieftains that were gradually losing their force.

As this summary has hopefully made clear, this excellent book has an importance that reaches beyond the field of Old Norse studies. By his well-argued discarding of the obsolete kin-based model of early Scandinavian society, Jón Viðar Sigurðsson has opened up the unique Icelandic sources for comparative thinking about the nature of the changes affecting European societies during the centuries covered by the book. Such an approach would not have been foreign to Marc Bloch, who cited freely from Icelandic sagas to illustrate points in his classic book on Feudal Society.

Jón Viðar Sigurðsson's book originally appeared in Norwegian in 2010. No translator is cited, so the author seems to have reworked it in English himself. The reworking has involved some thorough revision: the bibliography includes no less than forty-two titles published between 2010 and 2015 (but, curiously, none at all from 2012; did all scholars in the field rest on their laurels during that year?).

This reviewer's only regret is the use of the word "Viking" in the title of both the Norwegian and the English version of the book, no doubt to bow to marketing considerations. "Viking" was not an ethnic name; it was an occupational term, meaning "pirate." How many times do we have to repeat that truism?