The Norse Discovery of America, by A.M Reeves, N.L. Beamish and R.B. Anderson, , at sacred-texts.com
It has thus been shewn how the materials for history had been collected in Iceland, and how these materials were moulded into the form of narrative by oral tradition; it now remains to be seen how the traditions became the subjects of written documents, and historical literature assumed a definite and permanent form.
Snorre Sturleson says in the preface to the Heimskringla that Are Frode (b. 1067, d. 1148) was the first who committed to writing, in the northern tongue, historical narrations both of the present and past. Soon afterwards Sæmund Frode wrote of the Norwegian kings. Both these authors finished their works at a late period of life, and after the year 1120; hence it has been inferred that no history was written in Iceland before the time of Are Frode, and consequently that such historical writing was the fruit
of a taste for literature generated by the introduction of Christianity.
This important event occurred in the year 1000. New ideas and new writings were now, doubtless, introduced, but a considerable time must have elapsed before these civilizing effects became general. Christianity was not propagated in Iceland by force, but was the result of the example of the mother country, the adhesion of individual chiefs to the new religion, and the indifference of many to the old. No violent persecution was awakened against the followers of the old idolatry, nor was the influence of the new religion upon morals and customs very visible at first. Sixteen years had elapsed from the introduction of Christianity, before an injunction from Olaf the Saint forbade the Icelanders to expose their children and eat horse-flesh. The first bishop (Isleif) was consecrated in 1056, but the influence of the priestly character depended, like that of the Hofgode in former times, on his personal qualities, and the power of his kinsmen. The oligarchy checked the growth and influence of the hierarchy. Even in the beginning of the 13th century, interdicts were little attended to, and we find the Archbishop of Throndhjem so late as A. D. 1213, obliged to shew great indulgence to the chiefs, who had cruelly maltreated Bishop Jodmund Aresen. With Christian worship came also frankincense, clerical robes, bells and books. Previous to this, the Icelanders were only acquainted with Runes, Runic stones, and Staves, and such small articles, upon which single words or sentences were inscribed. Individuals may, doubtless, have met with books, upon or near the island, just as Irish books were found there by the first settlers, but so long as Roman letters and the language in which
they were written were unknown, such books could only have been looked upon as foreign novelties. Now the priests brought Latin breviaries, and the new alphabet could not be found very difficult after the use of Runes. Fifty years after the introduction of Christianity, Bishop Isleif established the first school, which was soon followed by many others. The previous state of society had awakened a greater taste for reading and knowledge in Iceland, than in the rest of the North, and the tranquil habits of the people being favourable to the cultivation of letters, it was not long before many of them applied themselves ardently to literature. The Kristni Saga relates that towards the end of the 11th century there were many chiefs so learned that they might have been priests, and many were actually appointed to the sacred office. In the beginning of the 12th century, Ovid's Epistles and Amores were read in the schools, and in the course of the same century we find mention made of many who possessed collections of books.
For some time reading and literature were closely connected with the new religion. A knowledge of Latin letters was acquired in order to sing the Psalter, to which, without well understanding it, some magical influence was ascribed, and the young priest applied himself to Latin, in order that he might becomingly celebrate the Mass. For records of daily life, the Icelander needed not the foreign character; his Runes afforded him a readier medium, and their use was continued for a long period. On the other hand an acquaintance with the Latin language became of the greatest importance to his whole being; for thus an inexhaustible source of knowledge had been opened to him, and the travelling Icelander could now, in foreign
schools, become endowed with all the learning of the age, and by means of Latin books transfer this learning to his own country. Of these, the historical were the most congenial to his taste and habits, and the annalistic form was best suited to retain the fruits of his reading; hence came Icelanders to copy and afterwards to compile annals embracing long periods of time, and hence to treat Northern history in the same simple manner.
But peculiar difficulties presented themselves to the correct arrangement of these records. Much as had been related in Iceland of the events of the past, their chronological order was not preserved, and the only guide to this indispensable element of history were the long genealogical details of the individuals whose actions were recorded. To ascribe these different events to particular years, and arrange them in chronological order, required much time, trouble and investigation, yet under all these difficulties a book was completed which must excite the surprise and admiration of all the modern literati.
This book was written by Are Frode, under the title of Book of the Icelanders (Islendingabok) and contained a dry and condensed, but at the same time well arranged and comprehensive, view of the most important events in the history of the country. It has often been regretted, that a larger work by the same author has been lost. The former, with good reason, was highly prized, for it laid the foundation of all northern history, determining many important epochs, and shewing their connexion and succession with minor events. But Snorre's expression about Are Frode has been misunderstood, when he is made to say that Are was the first Icelander who wrote anything historical. Snorre says that Are was the first Icelander who was a historian,
but by this he could not mean to say that no one had ever put a Saga upon paper before Are Frode; for this, after Icelanders had been educated in schools, could not be well maintained.
The preceding shows that a number of narratives, thrown into an agreeable form, were current throughout Iceland, and that these, favoured by a free constitution, were increased by all the remarkable events that took place either in the island or the neighbouring kingdoms. The transition to written documents was now easy and natural: he who was accustomed to read and write, and who perhaps relied less upon his memory than others, was readily led to take down in writing that which he was desirious to retain, and thus he constructed a Saga. But the writer of such a Saga would never think of appending his name to it, and thereby seeking the honours of authorship, for he merely wrote down what he had heard others say, and exactly as he had heard it. Hence are the greater number of Icelandic Sagas anonymous; the date must be determined by the contents, and it is very possible that many of these narratives, such as Vigastrys and Heidarviga Saga were written earlier than the Schedæ of Are Frode. The other principal Icelandic historian was Are's friend, Sæmund, also surnamed Frode, or the learned, whose work on the Norwegian kings, from Harald Haarfager to Magnus the Good, is now lost: it is quoted less frequently than that of Are, the most important events having probably been already determined by him.
The peculiar nature of the settlement, and the circumstances under which it had been formed, directed the attention of the Icelandic historians of the 12th century more particularly to details connected with the colonization of the island: the order in which families had become established,
their genealogy, territory, how they were allied etc.; and the fruit of these enquiries was the celebrated Landnamabok. Next to these local matters came the reigns of the two Olafs, of whose achievements many narratives were in circulation and whose zeal in the propagation of Christianity caused them to be surrounded with a sacred halo. The life of Olaf Tryggveson was written in Latin by two monks, named Gunlaug and Odd, who gave as authorities the oral relations of men from the middle of the same century, at the end of which they wrote; their labour consisted in little more than translating into Latin, and accompanying with a few remarks that which had been communicated to them by others, for both these notices of Olaf's life shew that neither of the authors related anything on his own personal knowledge. About the same period a diffuse compilation was made, recording the achievements of St. Olaf during his life, and his miracles after his death; this was afterwards employed by Snorre, and his contemporary Styrmer, but the nature of both these works renders it probable that many parts had been already written in detached narratives before the whole was collected.
These lives of the Olafs are, in all probability, the earliest regularly arranged written record of a narrative which had been orally related, and they form a connecting link between historical writing and tradition. The achievements of Harald Haarfager, also, which are mentioned in so many narratives of the Icelandic colonists, as having been sung by so many Skalds, whose songs were remembered, and which besides contained events of such great general importance to the Icelanders, were no doubt committed to writing in the course of the 12th century
From such lives of individual kings, the Sagas of the
[paragraph continues] Kings of Norway could easily be compiled, for just as the isolated deeds of an Icelander were put together to form the history of his life, and thereto were added the achievements of his forefathers and children, so by uniting the lives of Harald Haarfager and the two Olafs, a Saga of Norwegian Kings was already formed. But he who collected or transcribed such a history in the 12th century never thought of writing a book, still less of being looked upon as an author; he wrote either because he wished to note down certain events for his own satisfaction, or in order to have a good collection of entertaining narratives to relate to his friends. The first attempts were naturally imperfect and unequal, for the materials were casually collected, and the most disproportionate brevity and prolixity is to be observed amongst them; but these became better after a time, and only the most deserving were eventually transcribed.
Next to the Olafs, Harald Haardraade was the Norwegian King who furnished the richest materials to the historian, and already during his life time, and with his cognizance, a romantic complimentary Saga, of his residence at Constantinople, founded upon Haldor Snorreson's prolix narrative, was in circulation. There was another class of Saga which must have led the admirers of the bardic art to collect them into a united form, namely, the celebrated mythic Sagas of the Volsunger and Ginkunger, whose deeds formed the theme of the oldest songs of the Skalds, and from whence so many poetical images are taken. No Icelander who either ventured to indite a strophe himself, or made any pretensions to poetic taste, could be ignorant of these. The Volsunga Saga is supposed to have been written either at the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century.
That the Icelanders who thus, in the 12th century, committed to paper for their own information the achievements of foreign kings, were not unmindful of the transactions of their own island, may be easily believed; nor did they fail to note down carefully the concerns of their own families and the valorous deeds of their kinsmen and forefathers. But of these narratives, there was scarcely one that could be properly called a book, that is to say, a work published for the information of others; they could only be looked upon as records for personal use, or echoes of the living narrative and assistants to its propagation.
The first real writers of history that Iceland produced--those, namely, who collected historical materials, which they individually worked out with the view of communicating the knowledge of remarkable events to their fellow men,--were those who wrote the history of their own times. The first of these was Erik Oddson, who, according to Snorre, wrote from the testimony of eye-witnesses, and from what he himself had learned from Harald Gille and his sons in the middle of the 12th century. This book is used by Snorre, and still more literally by the author of the MS. Morkinskinna. Next to him comes Carl Jonson, who was Abbot of Thingore Monastery in 1169, and wrote the first part of the history of King Sverre, under the personal inspection of the monarch himself: the succeeding part was finished by Styrmer, in the first half of the 10th century. These authors followed exactly the historical style which had been formed by oral relation. The circumstance of King Sverre, who carefully employed every means of leading public opinion in his favour, having sought to influence the Abbot while writing his history, proves that already at that time a feeling for literature had been awakened.
Thus in the 12th century, when the night of ignorance and barbarism still hung over the rest of Europe, narratives which had previously been transmitted by oral tradition were taken down with the pen, and the writing of books was commenced in Iceland. The following century was the golden age of Icelandic historical literature, for in that age lived Snorre Sturleson. 1 His mode of writing history was to collect the Sagas that had been written before his time, to strike out whatever displeased him, make abstracts of what he considered too diffuse, and enliven the recital by the introduction of a few strophes from the old Skalds. He states nothing for which he has not good authority; he rejects whatever was too trifling to be consistent with the dignity of history, as well as the greater part of those legends which several of the copyists have inserted in his work: but, on the other hand, he does not pass by a single illustrative feature, and has faithfully preserved the lively character of the ancient Saga.
Between 1264 and 1271, being some years after Sverres Saga had been completed, Sturle Thordson wrote the history of Hakon Hakonson, at the instigation of Magnus Lagebæter, and according to the materials which he had collected at the Norwegian court. His work is therefore to be looked upon as an independent performance, and both
as regards its comprehensiveness and historical arrangement, must be classed amongst the best of the Icelandic historical works.
The Sagas which embrace that period of time, extending from the death of Sverre to the birth of Hakon Hakonson, are probably written later than Hakon Hakonson's Saga, for as they just fill up the space between these two great historical works, the want of this link would not clearly appear until the latter had been completed. The fragment which remains of Magnus Lagebæter's Saga, shews that it was intended to continue the series of Royal Narratives, but these could scarcely have been of much interest, as no MSS. are extant.
A Jarls Saga was also compiled in the 13th century, being a collection of ancient Narratives relating to the Jarls of the Orkneys, which were united and continued under the name of the Orkneyinga Saga. The civil disturbances in Iceland at this period were described by Sturle Thordson, and besides this many were employed in writing Annals.
In the 16th century, although the decline of learning had commenced much literary activity was still visible in Iceland; but the independent compilation or composition of history had ceased, and only a few Bishop Sagas were still written. On the other hand copying was carried on with great industry, older Sagas were transcribed, the Landnamabok completed, and the Kristnisaga, or description of the introduction of Christianity into the country, was extracted from the older writings: the copious MSS. called Flatobogen, 1 still shews with what industry individual ecclesiastics
collected and transcribed the older historical Sagas towards the end of this century.
182:1 Son of the wealthy and powerful Chief Sturle Thordson, and Lagman or governor of Iceland in 1213. "His countrymen," says an eloquent writer, love to compare him with the most celebrated of the Roman orators, to whom both in character and fortune he bore a striking resemblance. Both were called to the highest offices in their native land by the voice of their admiring countrymen--both amidst the cares and distractions of political life, soothed their labours by literature, and won its brightest honors from their less busy contemporaries,--both lived at a time when the bulwarks of freedom were crumbling into fragments around them,--and both, taking an active share in the unnatural conflict, fell victims to the success of their enemies. Like Cicero, too, Snorre was distinguished for his powerful, fervid eloquence, and by his rank, wealth and talents was entitled to the highest place in the state. But his character was stained by avarice and ambition, and he is accused of having often failed to perform boldly what he had prudently contrived."
183:1 The book of Flat Island (codex Flateyensis), so called from having been found in a monastery on the Island of Flato (Flat Island) situated north of the Brelda Fjord in Iceland. It is a vellum MS. containing copies of a number of Sagas, executed between 1387 and 1395, and is preserved in the Royal Library of Copenhagen.