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Anglo-Saxon England in Icelandic Medieval Texts

Anglo-Saxon England in Icelandic Medieval Texts

Magnús Fjalldal
  • Book Info
    Anglo-Saxon England in Icelandic Medieval Texts
    Book Description:

    Medieval Icelandic authors wrote a great deal on the subject of England and the English. This new work by Magnús Fjalldal is the first to provide an overview of what Icelandic medieval texts have to say about Anglo-Saxon England in respect to its language, culture, history, and geography.

    Some of the texts Fjalldal examines include family sagas, the shorterþættir, the histories of Norwegian and Danish kings, and the Icelandic lives of Anglo-Saxon saints. Fjalldal finds that in response to a hostile Norwegian court and kings, Icelandic authors – from the early thirteenth century onwards (although they were rather poorly informed about England before 1066) – created a largely imaginary country where friendly, generous, although rather ineffective kings living under constant threat welcomed the assistance of saga heroes to solve their problems.

    The England of Icelandic medieval texts is more of a stage than a country, and chiefly functions to provide saga heroes with fame abroad. Since many of these texts are rarely examined outside of Iceland or in the English language, Fjalldal's book is important for scholars of both medieval Norse culture and Anglo-Saxon England.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7086-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-2)

    Ideally, the kind of book that documented how Anglo-Saxon history is recorded in medieval Icelandic sources would be a large anthology containing all the relevant texts concerning Anglo-Saxon England and a reliable English translation of them. The idea of putting such a book together is not new: it was first suggested about 150 years ago by Eiríkur Magnússon, and envisaged as a five or six volume study.¹ The project was too ambitious for nineteenth-century publishers, however, and remains so in the century that has just begun. So, instead of attempting anything of the sort, I have settled for re-telling these...

  4. 1 Old English and Old Norse: The Evidence of Gunnlaugs saga, Fyrsta málfrœðiritgerðin, and Hauksbók
    (pp. 3-11)

    Aside fromEgils saga, the late thirteenth-century workGunnlaugs saga ormstungu (The Saga of Gunnlaugr Serpent-Tongue)offers more information about Anglo-Saxon England than any other Icelandic family saga, and thus provides a good starting point in trying to establish what knowledge medieval Icelanders might have had of Old English.¹ According to the saga’s chronology, Gunnlaugr is in London during the winter of 1002–3, and his visit there is decribed as follows:

    At that time there ruled over England King Ethelred [Æthelred], son of Edgar, and he was a good prince. He was passing this winter in London. At that...

  5. 2 Old English and Old Norse: The Evidence of Other Sources
    (pp. 12-21)

    The Icelandic texts provide at least five different explanations as to how the English and the Norse are said to communicate. First, there is the testimony of some family sagas, histories of kings, and sagas of bishops in which Icelanders and the English communicate as if they literally spoke the same language. Second, there is the suggestion that Old English and Old Norse were similar enough for speakers to be able to communicate in their own language and be understood by those speaking the other. Then there is A.H. Smith’s hypothesis that there was an Anglo-Scandinavian dialect in Anglo-Saxon England...

  6. 3 General Knowledge and Attitudes about Anglo-Saxon England and Its Customs
    (pp. 22-32)

    One of the first things the Romans learned about their neighbours to the north – or so Tacitus tells us in hisGermania– was that they were farmers rather than city dwellers. Thus it is not surprising that the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes should set their sights on fertile England. Bede tells us, for instance, that the Saxons, after migrating to England, left behind such a barren country that, after their departure, it ‘is said to remain unpopulated to this day.’¹ That it was the abundance and quality of land that attracted the three tribes in the first place...

  7. 4 History — Heimskringla , Ágrip af Nóregskonunga sogum, Fagrskinna, Knýtlinga saga, and Morkinskinna: From Haraldr Fair-hair to the Sons of Cnut
    (pp. 33-53)

    This chapter deals exclusively with what these Icelandic histories of Norwegian and Danish kings have to say about Anglo-Saxon England and English affairs.Ágrip af Nóregskonunga sogum (A Summary of the Histories of the Kings of Norway)is believed to have been composed originally in Norway, but a copy was made in Iceland at a later date, so it is included with the other sagas of kings. My aim is to give a broad critical overview, and – as before – to discuss what information is verifiable, what looks credible, and what appears to be pure fantasy. In the histories I shall...

  8. 5 History — Heimskringla, Ágrip af Nóregskonunga sogum, Fagrskinna, Knýtlinga saga, and Morkinskinna: From Magnús the Good to Eysteinn Haraldsson
    (pp. 54-68)

    After the death of Harthacnut and the ascension of Edward the Confessor to the English throne, Danish kings may have lost all hope of regaining England, but their Norwegian counterparts had not, at least not Magnús the Good or, as we shall shortly see, Haraldr harðráða. After all, Magnús had made a deal with Harthacnut, according toKnýtlinga saga,and under its terms it was he and not Edward who was the rightful heir to the throne.Morkinskinna(52–5),Fagrskinna(chap. 48), andHeimskringla(III, chaps. 36–7) all relate the following story of how Magnús tried to claim...

  9. 6 History — Egils saga
    (pp. 69-82)

    No Icelandic text, other than the histories of the kings of Norway and Denmark, purports to offer more information about Anglo-Saxon England and its history thanEgils saga, which is believed to have been composed during the early thirteenth century.¹ This information is preserved in the so-called Vínheiðr episode (chaps. 50–5), which relates Egill’s involvement in the Battle of Brunanburh. The critical debate over this part of the saga has been dominated for more than a century by arguments over what historical information it might contain, and how such information might have been accessible to the author.

    Decades before...

  10. 7 History — Breta sögur, Saga Ósvalds konúngs hins helga, Dunstanus saga, and Jatvarðar saga
    (pp. 83-100)

    It is commonly agreed that Icelandic students studying in England during the twelfth century would have brought books back with them upon their return to Iceland.¹ Two bishops from wealthy and prominent Icelandic families, Páll Jónsson and his uncle Þorlákr Þórhallsson (St Þorlákr), are believed to have studied in Lincoln. Both have been singled out as learned men, particularly interested in history, who surely would have obtained any books they could find on the history of Anglo-Saxon England, particularly the works of William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon.² Unfortunately, William, Henry, and other English historians have not left their...

  11. 8 Kings and Courts
    (pp. 101-112)

    Iceland — a country without a king during the Middle Ages, until its union with Norway — had a curious love-hate relationship with the notion of kingship and the importance of courts. Much of the time, medieval Icelandic writers loathed the court of Norway. They knew the Norwegian kings had schemes to gain control over the country (which they eventually did in 1262), and they also knew the Norwegian court was actively supporting certain players in what was virtually a civil war in Iceland during the first half of the thirteenth century. If you fell afoul of the Norwegian royal tyrants they...

  12. 9 The Hero and His Deeds
    (pp. 113-120)

    In medieval Icelandic literature, Anglo-Saxon England is often depicted as a country where Scandinavian heroes demonstrate their ability to perform great deeds of valour. We have already seen numerous examples of the invaluable services that Icelanders, Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes offer to English kings in the sagas, and their lasting contributions on English soil. After all, how would London and York have been founded, if not for the sons of Ragnarr loðbrók? What would have happened to King Athelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh, had he not employed the military might and strategy of Egill and Þórólfr? Or consider the...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 121-124)

    During the thirteenth century, when Icelandic writers began to take interest in it, Anglo-Saxon England was long gone and much of its language and history with it. It was, in other words, something of an Atlantis: a land once great and glorious which had now ceased to exist. Certainly, there was much to link Scandinavian and English history – and hence much to discuss – but virtually none of it had anything to do with Iceland. One can argue that because so much of thirteenth-century Icelandic literature is concerned with past Scandinavian history, it was only natural that England would be included....

  14. Notes
    (pp. 125-148)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 149-158)
  16. Index
    (pp. 159-162)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 163-163)