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Norse–Gaelic Contacts: Genres and Transmission
Rosemary Power

Journal of the North Atlantic, Special Volume 4 (2013): 19–25

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R. Power 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 19 A major group of sources for the study of the history of medieval Scotland, especially its western seaboard and islands, are Scandinavian. The majority of these are Icelandic and date mainly from the thirteenth century, and they can supplement information known from Scots, Irish, Manx, and English sources for their period and, in some cases, for the preceding century or more. In addition, there are two other kinds of material contained in the sagas: the accounts of events said to have taken place in the Viking Age, perhaps some three centuries before these written accounts; and the imprint of a certain amount of Gaelic story that has survived, adapted, and found its way into the literature, and sometimes later folk tradition, of Iceland. The different kinds of material found in Scandinavia are thus relevant to the study of both history and literature in the Gaelic world. This paper is a brief summary of the three distinct areas of contact in the Viking and High Middle Ages between the Norse and Gaelic worlds that has left us with written material, and a still briefer consideration of some of the difficulties and uses surrounding them. It is necessary to consider the nature of the material and the purposes for which it was written, the ways in which it has been transmitted or preserved, the period at which transmission occurred, and the reasons why the selection of some material, but not other, may have been made. The written sources do not of course stand alone, and can be supplemented by work undertaken in the fields of archaeology and oral tradition. The intention here is to make some suggestions relevant to the larger picture of source transmission. In order to consider the nature of the sources, a specific incident that occurred in 1202 is explored, in an attempt to consider the different kinds of evidence that can be used when assessing one of the aspects of the contacts. The oldest area of contact between the Norse and Gaelic worlds, involving the transmission of stories of the kind now regarded as literature or folktale, seems to have occurred almost exclusively in the Viking Age. Scandinavian stories, as opposed to characters, do not seem to have contributed substantially to the literature and folk tradition of Ireland (though the presence of the Vikings has left plenty of marks). However, a small number of stories embedded in later Icelandic literature and sometimes in folk tradition appear to be of Gaelic origins. Some, like the álög/ geasa tales of enchantment and obligation, and perhaps those of a hero’s sojourn in the otherworld, indicate multiple introductions. It seems more than one version arrived, and that implies that a population, not an individual, introduced them; and that a population then acclimatized them to their new geographical, linguistic, and cultural setting. These stories seems to represent a closed group. Stories found in Iceland but not elsewhere in Scandinavia have acculturated, and then seem to have stopped coming. The kind of people who brought them did not continue travelling backwards and forwards, and the Gaelic women and slaves who arrived with the settlers therefore seem the obvious sources.1 There are indeed a few less-widely distributed folktales that might have arrived later, but these seem to have their origins in international stories that could have travelled through intermediate means. Study of this material requires the consideration of, and then exclusion of, the possibility of later transmission from other sources, such as French Romance. For example, to take only the stories of transformation of a person into a monster, or the placing of them under some spell, many of the geasa/alög tales cannot be used as evidence of direct transmission because they have Romance literary equivalents. There is also a less easily definable sense of a general Gaelic influence in the fictional stories of medieval Iceland, but, apart from the small number of tales that have been studied in depth, there is no overall agreement on its extent. Similar work has Norse–Gaelic Contacts: Genres and Transmission Rosemary Power* Abstract - This article identifies three distinct areas of contact between the Norse and the Gaelic worlds in the Viking and High Middle Ages. Considerations are made of the nature of the material and the purposes for which it was written, the ways in which it has been transmitted or preserved, and the period at which transmission occurred. A particular incident that occurred in 1202 and is recorded in various sagas is examined in order to illustrate the different kinds of evidence that can be used when assessing aspects of the contacts. The purpose is to identify the ways in which different sources can complement each other. This evaluation provides a baseline when considering other events, and helps determine whether there are patterns of source transmission between the two cultural and linguistic areas. Across the Sólundarhaf: Connections between Scotland and the Nordic World Selected Papers from the Inaugural St. Magnus Conference 2011 Journal of the North Atlantic *Centre for Antique, Medieval, and Pre-Modern Studies, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland; rosemary_power@ eircom.net. 2013 Special Volume 4:19–25 R. Power 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 20 been undertaken in consideration of whether the Orkney Islands provided a place in which Gaelic and Scandinavian stories intermingled.2 The Icelanders who heard the stories in the twelfth and thirteenth century were probably unaware of Gaelic origins for them. They were, however, aware of the Gaelic world, from the accounts of the settlement of Iceland during the Viking Age and the arrival of people of Gaelic ancestry and sometimes name; from similar accounts in the “Family sagas” that were being produced as written works at about this time, and possibly from oral tradition as well. They would also have been aware in the thirteenth century, when much was written concerning the history of the kings of Norway, of both the Viking Age and contemporaneous contact with people from the western lands. They may have heard in particular about the kingdom of the Hebrides and Isle of Man, which owed allegiance to Norway; and about the Irish Sea area, which may have retained particular interest because it had been settled by Norse peoples and because it figures in the written sagas. Still more difficult to address than the Gaelic influence on fictional story are the accounts that appear to document actual events in Ireland or the west. The events in question were recorded in writing in Iceland, in most cases some three hundred or so years later, and their value in a historical sense must be open to question. During the mid-twentieth century, the historical validity of the sagas in general became part of a debate concerning whether they were based on real events, the details of which had been preserved orally in the intervening centuries, or whether they were twelfth- and thirteenth-century constructions. Some, at least, of the accounts may have some historical credibility, though the question of when they were transmitted is not always clear. One matter, significant from the perspective of this paper, concerns the Icelandic accounts of the Battle of Clontarf near Dublin in 1014, which bear similarities to Irish sources. This similarity was pointed out in the nineteenth-century edition of the main source, the Irish Cogadh Gaedhal re Gallaibh, The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill (Todd 1867), believed to have been composed in Dublin in about 1114 on the behest of its ruler, the Munster King Muirchertach Ua Briain (r. 1086–1119), the greatgrandson of Brian bóruma, the main protagonist. The links have been studied, though no consensus has been reached.3 In recent years, the Irish scholar Donnchadh Ó Corráin (1998) suggested that a written Norse saga, now lost, was composed in Dublin and was used by the later Icelandic authors. However, no such sagas are known to have been composed anywhere by this date. A more probable scenario is that Norse interpretations of the Battle of Clontarf were transmitted orally to an Irish audience a little over a decade previously, in 1102–1103 when Norway’s King Magnús berfættr, barelegs (1093–1103), and his entourage wintered at Muirchertach’s court. Our increasing understanding of the degree of contact in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries may warrant further examination of this episode, and there are other events that might also be considered, in case traditional stories that had circulated orally might have been open to supplementation by travellers’ accounts in later times. The story of the Irish slave Melkorka, daughter of an Irish king Mýrjartak, Muirchertach, is found in Landnámabók, the Book of Settlements (Benediktsson 1968) and more fully in Laxdæla saga (Sveinsson 1934), which also recounts the adventures of her Icelandic-born, Irish-speaking son Óláfr pá, peacock, when he visited his maternal grandfather in Ireland. Jean Young (1933–1934) suggested a link to the royal family of Knowth in the mid-tenth century, and recent studies in Ireland have shown the attempts of this dynasty to control the Dublin Vikings of the period. There are also the Gaelic personal names, some of which remain in use, and a small number of Gaelic words found in Iceland, including a brief conversation found in Jóns saga helga (Foote 2003), the saga of the saintly Bishop Jón of Iceland, said to take place at the court of Muirchertach Ua Briain in 1102 (Power 2000). There are also a few personal names that are noted in accounts of the Hebrides in the thirteenth century.4 There has been study in recent years about the transmission of contemporary, or more nearly contemporary, sources in the middle ages, and it may be worth considering whether certain existing ancestral stories in Iceland were added to with the help of additional knowledge, which provided the opportunities to bolster and expand on what was already known. Work on the Irish Sea area in the eleventh and twelfth centuries may help to clarify the interim period.5 Further, in recent years, the contemporary, or relatively near-contemporary, sagas of Iceland, including portions of Orkneyinga saga (Guðmundsson 1965), have been used in conjunction with other sources to attempt to form a coherent historical narrative of events in Ireland, and even more, the Hebrides and Isle of Man, as seen from a Norse perspective. As more is understood of the selection of source material used to form the existing sagas, more can perhaps be understood of the standing of the material related to the Viking Age. However, attempts to draw definitive conclusions are limited by the frequent lack of corroborative evidence for the matters recounted in sagas concerned with this period. Any such research depends considerably on what can be learnt from the sagas that chart the period R. Power 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 21 from the late eleventh century onwards. These concern both contemporary or near-contemporary events and those occurring no more than about a hundred years before they were written down, a period in which reliable oral transmission within a family is quite possible. An example of historical information recorded in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries but concerning earlier times is found in the accounts of Magnús barelegs. There are also some earlier Scandinavian accounts of his actions in the poems in Norse said to be contemporary to the events in question. These sources serve as praise poetry on specific matters rather than providing a dispassionate overview, but they do not contradict and seem to support what we know from elsewhere, from corroborative non- Norse sources. Magnús’ activities affected societies that were accustomed to charting events in writing. We do not have a coherent Norse account of western lands in this period, but rather we combine sources written for different ends which mention the west in passing, either because an event was intrinsically interesting or because it in some way impinged on the writer’s main theme. The result is that we have a patchy understanding, and sometimes the source material is so thin that modern scholars may be constructing their own narrative to fill the gaps, as medieval writers probably did before them. There is, however, a near-contemporary narrative account of the final period of regular interaction in Hákonar Saga by the Icelander Sturla Þórðarson who never went west himself but spoke to many who did. In order for these sources to have been produced in the form we have them, there must have been a certain amount of information, written or otherwise, passing between the two areas, perhaps through the courts and taverns frequented by western nobles and their followers and perhaps through the monasteries (Power 2005). In addition to evidence of knowledge of the lands to the west embedded in the writing of Snorri Sturluson, Sturla and others, there is more elusive evidence of contact. Such hints may be present in The Chronicle of the Kings of Man and the Isles (Munch and Goss 1874). The extant Latin version of this work dates to the later thirteenth century, but earlier versions, perhaps recounted orally, may possibly lie behind some odd hints of matters that may have passed from the Gaelic world to the Norse saga-writers.6 Some of the stories it contains seem to be vague echoes of what is known in the sources. Dreams parallel each other, and the bare feet of Magnús of Norway, or at least the cognomen, may be echoed in an odd incident involving Muircheartach Ua Briain.7 This king wielded considerable power in the early twelfth century, and while this matter may have been downplayed later on the Isle of Man, there must be some reason why he offers to wear on his shoulders, or even eat, the Norwegian king’s shoes. The Chronicle even provides, with regard to this disruptive seafarer, a genuine date. There are also other sources, where transmission is uncertain. The King’s Mirror (Larsson 1917), a Norwegian handbook of courtly manners, religious etiquette, trade, and cosmography, was apparently compiled at the Norwegian court in the mid-thirteenth century. The west was of sufficient interest for a substantial section on Ireland to be included, from a still unidentified source, together with descriptions of other lands, including Iceland and Greenland, both of which were to succumb to the overlordship of Norway. Ireland is described fulsomely, with space given to its wonders. It is the best of all the lands west over sea even though the grape does not grow there, a land of saints and sinners, the latter being violent against everyone except the saints. (No scholars are mentioned.) While the ambitions Hákon had in Ireland, described at the end of Hákonar saga, came to nothing, the inclusion may indicate more than passing interest and perhaps a certain degree of information. In order to look more closely at the kind of material and its complexity, even in the relatively controversy-free area of sources that deal with nearcontemporary historical events, I have picked on one key incident to provide additional material about sailing patterns that was presumably derived from the knowledge of those who had made the journey, perhaps regularly. In 1202, a party of Icelanders were storm-driven to the Hebrides, an incident whose details indicate how little was known about the kingdom in spite of a language and trading practices held in common. The accounts relating to Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson (killed 1213) and Guðmundr Árason (1161–1237) tell of the difficult journey to Norway for Guðmundr’s consecration as bishop of Iceland’s northern see, Hólar. The story is told in Hrafns saga, and also in versions of the saga of Guðmundr, the oldest of which, Prests saga Guðmundar Árasonar, was, like Hrafns saga, written in the first half of the thirteenth century, though it no longer survives independently. The Prests saga is believed to be by Lambkárr, a friend of Guðmundr’s who died in 1249, and survives in the compilation Sturlunga saga (Helgadóttir 1987:19–23).8 The interrelationships of the texts are so great that they must be regarded as a single source with variations rather than as corroborative accounts. The story as a whole, however, sheds light on how material may have been derived from more than one informant, and may even reflect two separate voyages undertaken R. Power 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 22 by Icelanders that year, which have been conflated. Guðmundr and Hrafn took passage that summer on a trading ship that twice attempted to take the northern route from Iceland to Norway, only to be blown back on each occasion. A dream in which Guðmundr was seen by one of those on board being blessed by the saintly bishop Jón of Hólar, led the bishop-elect to advise the crew to take the southeastern route, which they did. Initially, they were successful but were then blown severely off course. During a storm, they managed to recognize the Suðreyjar, the Hebrides, and according to Prests saga, they identified Hirtir, the remote islands of Saint Kilda. The version in Sturlunga saga says that they landed there and learnt of the death of King Sverrir that March, some four months before the voyage. The other sources do not state that they landed on this remote outpost, which, like the rest of the Hebrides, in theory, owed fealty and taxes to Norway. Instead, Hrafns saga, which has a shorter opening account of the journey that names only the severe weather that summer and the difficulties encountered sailing from Iceland, recounts that they were driven off-course around Hvarf, Cape Wrath, the northernmost point on the Scottish mainland. The bishop-elect then insisted that Hrafn take charge. In the other versions, the ship was blown towards the coast of Ireland, and the crew heard the waves breaking on all sides. While Guðmundr’s prayers had calmed the worst moments of the storm, their situation was clearly perilous. At this time of greatest danger, the Prests saga tells, the travellers confessed their sins, then the clerics repaired their tonsures (this was at night, in a storm at sea) and the traders promised wadmal, wax, and a pilgrimage by one of their number should death be averted. With Guðmundr demanding that Hrafn take charge, to which he reluctantly agreed, they came, the versions agree, to peaceful harbor at Sandey in the Suðreyjar. Guðmundr went on land to say the Office, the Prests saga noting that he entered the church there. They stayed in harbor some days, but they were met by representatives of the king, who is named Óláfr in the other main versions, and landing taxes were demanded of them. They were then met in person by Óláfr, King of the Isles, who courteously invited them to dine with him, on land. When Guðmundr and Hrafn sought to leave, they were detained and the payment of the landing tax again was demanded. The Icelanders, who had just promised a considerable amount to the Church in return for their survival, were reluctant to pay the amount of wadmal demanded, a hundred ells for each of the twenty on board, giving as reason that they would have to pay the same again in Norway. A standoff ensued, the Icelanders taking to a small hill near the church, and matters looked as if they would lead to violence. However, a compromise was reached under which the Icelanders paid merely six hundred ells between them. The Icelanders again set sail and made landfall in Norway, where they learnt of the death of King Sverrir. The saga accounts focus upon the holiness of Guðmundr, and the extent to which the forces of evil, in the form of the weather and human cupidity, opposed him and the virtuous Hrafn; how Guðmundr wisely put Hrafn in charge of their ship, ensuring their safe arrival in harbor, and how his tactful negotiations brought the Icelanders out of a second threatening situation. While Guðmundr never achieved the status of saint, there were considerable attempts after his death to compose the hagiographies and engage in the process by which sainthood could be achieved. While Hrafn’s saga can be called one of Iceland’s contemporary sagas, a native, home-spun account intended for local pride, edification, and entertainment, Guðmundr’s various sagas, though composed in the vernacular, have this wider intention. The actual event may be regarded from the Hebridean perspective as an intended scam. With Sverrir dead and uncertainty in Norway, they seem to have claimed to be collecting tax from the stormdriven foreigners on the grounds that they were entering the Norwegian king’s domains. The Icelanders were convinced that they would, however, have to pay them again in Norway. Moreover, in these versions, though the Hebrideans in the harbor (no doubt like the people of Saint Kilda), knew of Sverrir’s death, this was a matter the Icelanders did not learn about until later. From the perspective of Guðmundr’s sanctity, this may serve as evidence that he saved them both from the storm and from strangers. Norway suffered divided monarchy after the time of Sverrir, and it may be that the Hebrideans saw more chance of getting away with trickery during a time of turmoil. The Icelanders were unready to risk it anyway, and Guðmundr’s reputation for wise dealing can be seen as enhanced because when they get to Norway they learn that Sverrir had died, a matter that would have lessened their chances of getting recompense. There may even be an echo of this embarrassing event in Hákonar saga, written in the late 1260s. Here, Hebrideans are said to be untrustworthy, a comment which may reflect knowledge of this episode, and indeed similar events. We learn from the texts themselves the amount of landing tax to be paid in the Norwegian king’s realms, though it is left uncertain whether it was the R. Power 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 23 duty of his under-kings to collect it; the saga implies the Icelanders were at best uncertain, but being weakened by storm were willing to compromise. It is unclear whether they were certain of the authority of the different rulers in the west. The king they meet, Óláfr, is known through the Chronicle of the Kings of Man as the younger, but legitimate, brother of Rǫgnvaldr of Man. At this stage a young man, he ruled the island of Lewis, a land so barren that not long after this incident he unwisely complained to his brother, who promptly arranged for him to be imprisoned for several years in Scotland. He eventually succeeded Rǫgnvaldr and ruled until 1237, dying only a few years before the earliest versions of this account were written. At this early stage in his career, he may have been storm-driven to the harbor at Sandey himself, for he almost certainly had no authority in the Small Isles, which appear to have been under the rule of his cousin Ruaidhrí of the opposing Somerled line of kings, a ruler who may already have made his base at what became the family castle at Tioram in Loch Moidart, not far away. It seems likely that, far from acting as tax collector for the king of Norway, Óláfr was trying his luck and made off with what he could easily get rather than risk being weakened by fighting and then encountering the arrival of Ruaidhrí. The accounts illustrate another matter—that the Icelanders knew, directly or by hearsay, the geography of the area they travelled in. The sailors knew when they were off the coast of Ireland and then heading for Sandey, now Sanday, which with Canna in the Small Isles forms what is still one of the best harbors in the Hebrides, and one to which fishermen head in storms. Coming from the Irish coast, they seem to recognize and follow the distinctive outlines of the Isles of Eigg and Rhum to a known safe harbor at these islands just north of Rhum. The version that says they put in at Saint Kilda is also a feasible account for storm-driven seafarers, for ships can apparently find safe harbor in the bay at Hirta, providing the wind is in the right direction. The crew in this account were not the first ship to arrive that year, intentionally or otherwise, with news, in this case the momentous news of the king’s death. We do not know which language, if any, they used to converse here. In the accounts of events on Sanday, language was not apparently a problem, neither in the offering of hospitality, nor in the bargaining that followed. The other interest in Canna and the harbor it makes with Sanday may have been that the island of Iona had long-standing rights in the island, and the Icelanders may have deemed it a place where a bishop-elect would be treated well. The following year, Iona’s community moved from a Columban rule to the Benedictine way of life, and the island of Canna is one of the lands referred to in the Founding Charter of December 1203 (printed in Munch and Goss 1874:152–153), suggesting it had been passed on from the earlier monastery. The Diocese of the Hebrides and Man, like the two Icelandic dioceses, were subject to the Archdiocese of Niðarós, providing another link, at least theoretically, through church organization and the consequent expectations of respect for the welfare of church officials. The accounts of the journey of the Icelandic bishop show home-grown interests, but also an awareness of the politics and personalities of the western lands and the seamanship they require. The sagas provide only glimpses, and the following years in the Hebrides witnessed internecine warfare and a raid by Norwegians which may have been in part royally sanctioned but included the plundering of Iona in 1210 during its rebuilding, all matters on which tentative conclusions can be made. Considering the sailing implications may be relevant when considering other events, such as the wintering in 1230 of a Norwegian-Hebridean fleet, led by the same king, Óláfr, on the Kaupmannaeyjar, the merchants’ islands, now known as the Copeland Islands, on the Irish side of the North Channel (Vigfússon and Unger 1860–1868:102). The cross currents meeting here indicate that wintering of a fleet at that location is feasible for skilled seamen with local knowledge. The reasons for selecting this windy refuge can be teased out from the politics of the period, as can the potential provisioning. A fleet positioned here would not only be very threatening to its enemies but very hard to attack. Similar understanding of the sea and terrain may explain a number of other matters. The sources relating to the death of Magnús barelegs in Ulaid in 1103, Morkinskinna (Andersson and Gåde 2000), Fagrskinna (Einarsson 1985, Finlay 2004), and especially Heimskringla (Aðalbjarnarson 1941–1951), indicate a landscape in the vicinity of Downpatrick, where he was buried, but as seen in the early thirteenth century, the time of writing, rather than the time of the event in the early twelfth century.9 Substantial work has been undertaken on Orkneyinga saga, which might provide a lynchpin for a fuller understanding of other sources. While only tentative suggestions can be made on the overall patterns of transmission of information that is both explicit and implicit in the texts, and the periods at which transmission occurred, the work of scholars in recent times suggest that there is much more to be learnt. 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Power 2013 Journal of the North Atlantic Special Volume 4 25 Endnotes 1The question of Gaelic influence in Icelandic literature was discussed in the early twentieth century and then left in abeyance by most scholars until the 1980s, with the notable exception of the Icelander Einar Ólafur Sveinsson. Many of the suggested tales have been listed by Sigurdsson (2000). The geasa/álög tales have been discussed in Sveinsson (1976), Power (1987), and O’Connor (2000). 2See Almqvist (1978–1979, 1991:237–242); Berry and Firth (1986:187–208, 318-22); and works noted in Ó Catháin (2001). 3See, for example, Christiansen (1931), Goedheer (1938), and Ní Mhaonaigh (2007). 4For overviews, see Craigie (1897), Sigurðsson (2000:25– 34), Turville-Petre (1953), and various notes on specific words in Saga-Book and Arkiv för nordisk filologi. 5See, for example, Beuermann (2002), Duffy (1997), Etchingham (2001), McDonald (1997), Sellar (2000), Swift (2004). 6Suggestion made orally by Stefán Karlsson, Stofun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, Rekjavík, 2005. 7Suggestion made orally by Kare Gåde, University of Indiana, Bloomington, IN, USA, 2003. See too Downham (2005). 8See Hasle (1967:26–30); Jóhannesson et al. (1946:159); Vigfússon and Sigurðsson (1858–1878:405–558, 483– 485). For discussion, see Power (2005:esp. 41–43) and McDonald (2007:77–78). The St. Kilda incident is discussed in Taylor (1967–1968:116–144). 9Discussion in Power (1994).