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Conversion and Cultural Memory in Medieval Iceland

  • Sverrir Jakobsson

Abstract

Christianization was an important and traumatic event that became embedded in the cultural memory of Icelanders. Through the reconstruction of this event in historical narratives, there was an ongoing debate on the identity of Icelanders as a group as the cultural heritage of this group was institutionalized and cultivated by particular organizations and individuals. This is reflected in very different emphasis on individual agents in this process, which can be found in various historical works composed between 1070 and 1330. The general trend is that the narrative became more inclusive for a larger group with each major version, as the leading role passed from the Archbishop to a select group of few leading families to a larger group including leaders from all parts of Iceland and, finally, to the general population, the humble as well as the mighty.

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1 Sterk, Andrea, “Representing Mission from Below: Historians as Interpreters and Agents of Christianization,” Church History 79, vol. 2 (May 2010): 271304, 304.

2 See: Vesteinsson, Orri, The Christianization of Iceland, Priests, Power, and Social Change 1000–1300 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Hugason, Hjalti: Frumkristni og upphaf kirkju. “Kristni á Íslandi (Reykjavík: Alþingi, 2000); Cormack, Margaret, The Saints in Iceland. Their Veneration from the Conversion to 1400, Subsidia Hagiographica 78 (Brussels: Soc. des Bollandistes, 1994); Arnórsdóttir, Agnes S., Property and Virginity: The Christianization of Marriage in Medieval Iceland 1200–1600 (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2010); Magnúsardóttir, Lára, Bannfæring og kirkjuvald á Íslandi 1275–1550. Lög og rannsóknarforsendur (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2007); Antonsson, Haki, “Traditions of Conversion in Medieval Scandinavia. A Synthesis,” Saga-Book 24 (2010): 2574; Antonsson, Haki, “The Early Cult of Saints in Scandinavia and the Conversion: A Comparative Perspective,” in Saints and their Lives on the Periphery: Veneration of Saints in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe (c.1000–1200), ed. Antonsson, Haki and Garipzanov, Ildar, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010), 1739.

3 See Assmann, Jan, “Kollektives Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität” in Kultur und Gedächtnis, eds. Jan Assmann & Tonio Hölscher (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1988), 919.

4 For arguments for a more precise dating see Janson, Henrik, Templum Nobilissimum. Adam av Bremen, Uppsalatemplet och konfliktlinjerna i Europa kring år 1075, Avhandlingar från Historiska institutionen i Göteborg, 21 (Gothenburg: Göteborg Universitet, 1998), 3439.

5 See Stok, Fabio, “Modelli e suggestioni sallustiane nella biografia dell'Arcivescovo Adalberto,” in Devotionis munus. La cultura e l‘opera di Adamo di Brema, eds. Scarcia, Riccardo & Stok, Fabio (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2010), 79100.

6 Helmold von Bosau, Slawenchronik, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 19, ed. Heinz Stoob, 2nd Edition (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft), 78.

7 Barnwell, Timothy, “Fragmented identites: otherness and authority in Adam of Bremen's History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen,” in The Resources of the Past in Early Medieval Europe ed. Gantner, Clemens, McKitterick, Rosamond & Meeder, Sven (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 206222.

8 See: Foerster, Thomas, Vergleich und Identität. Selbst- und Fremddeutung im Norden des hochmittelalterlichen Europa, Europa im Mittealter 14 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2009), 3234, 206.

9 Cf. Barnwell, “Fragmented identities,” 207–208; Garipzanov, Ildar, “Christianity and Paganism in Adam of Bremen's Narrative” in Historical Narratives and Christian Identity on a European Periphery: Early History Writing in Northern, East-Central, and Eastern Europe (c. 1070–1200), ed. Garipzanov, Ildar, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011): 1329, 18–20.

10 Quellen des 9. und 11. Jahrhunderts zur Geschichte der hamburgischen Kirche und des Reiches, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 11, eds. Werner Trillmich and Rudolf Buchner (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1961), 358. “in sola gentium legatione permansit integer officii et sine querela et talis, qualem et tempora et mores hominum mallent habere.”

11 Quellen des 9. und 11. Jahrhunderts, p. 358. “ab omnibus terrarum partis devote peneretur, maxime ab omnibus aquilonis populis. Inter quos extremi venerant Islani, Gronlani et Orchadum legati, petentes, ut predicatores illuc dirigeret; quod et fecit.”

12 See Gustafsson, Harald, “Islands kristnande—en kritisk undersökning,” Scandia 77 vol. 2 (2011): 1837, 27–28.

13 Quellen des 9. und 11. Jahrhunderts, 300.

14 Ibid., 346, 348.

15 The question of Norwegian hegemony in Iceland has been ignored by most Icelandic historians, because it did not fit the view of the image of Medieval Iceland as an independent “commonwealth,” see Gustafsson, “Islands kristnande,” 28.

16 Quellen des 9. und 11. Jahrhunderts, 486, 488. “et in hoc beatissima, quod nunc omnes induerunt christianitatem. Multa insignia in moribus eorum, precipua karitas, ex qua procedit, ut inter illos omnia communis sint, tam advenis quam indigenis. Episcopuum suum habent pro rege; ad illius nutum respicit omnis populous; quicquid ex Deo, ex scripturis, ex consuetudine aliarum gentium ille constituit, hoc pro lege habent.”

17 Quellen des 9. und 11. Jahrhunderts, 486, 488. “De quibus noster metropolitanus immensas Deo gratias retulit, quod suo tempore convertebantur, licet ante susceptam fidem naturali quadam lege non adeo discordabant a nostra religione. Itaque petentibus illis ordinavit quendam sanctissimum virum nomine Isleph. Qui ab eadem regione missus ad pontificem aliquandiu retentus est apud eum cum ingenti prorsus honore, discens interea, quibus noviter conversos ad Christum populos salubriter posset informare. Per quem transmisit archiepiscipus suos apices populo Islanorum et Gronlandorum, venerabiliter salutans eorum ecclesias et pollicens eis propediem se venturum usque ad illos, ud gaudio simul pleno fruantur.”

18 Haki Antonsson, “Traditions of Conversion in Medieval Scandinavia,” 32.

19 See Schmidt, Heinrich, “Skandinavien im Selbstverständnis der Bremer Kirche vom 9. bis zum 11. Jahrhundert,” in Bremen.1200 Jahre Mission, ed. Hägermann, Dieter, Schriften der Wittheit zu Bremen. N.F. 12 (Bremen: Johann Heinrich Döll Verlag, 1989): 3359, 52; Fraesdorff, David, Der barbarische Norden. Vorstellungen und Fremdheitskategorien bei Rimbert, Thietmar von Merseburg, Adam von Bremen und Helmold von Bosau, Orbis mediaevalis. Vorstellungswelten des Mittelalters 5 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2005), 298299.

20 See Рыбаков В. В. Адам Бременский о времени крещения Гренландии // Восточная Европа в древности и средневековье. Время источника и время в источнике. XVI чтения памяти чл.-корр. АН СССР Владимира Терентьевича Пашуто. Москва, 14–16 апреля 2004 г. Материалы конференции. Мoskva, 2004. 175–180.

21 Quellen des 9. und 11. Jahrhunderts, 268, 270, 272.

22 Ibid., 276.

23 Ibid., 290.

24 Ibid., 296. “Quorum clari doctrina et virtutibus erant Sigafrid, Grimkil, Rudolf et Bernard. Hii etiam iussu regis [ad] Suediam, Gothiam et omnes insules, quas trans Nortmanniam sunt, accesserunt, euangelizantes barbaris verbum Dei et regnum Iesu Christi.”

25 Ibid., 296, 298, 300, 302.

26 Ibid., 318.

27 Ibid., 338, 340, 342.

28 Ibid., 346, 348.

29 See Abrams, Lesley, “The Anglo-Saxons and the Christianization of Scandinavia,” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995), 213249.

30 See VScior, olker, Das Eigene und das Fremde: Identität und Fremdheit in den Chroniken Adams von Bremen, Helmolds von Bosau und Arnolds von Lübeck, Orbis mediaevalis: Vorstellungswelten des Mittelalters 4 (Berlin: Akademie, 2002), 87.

31 Íslenzk fornit I. Íslendingabók, Landámabók, ed. Jakob Benediksson (Reykjavik: Hið Íslenzka fornritafélag, 1968) ,I, 3. “Íslendingabók gørða ek fyrst byskupum órum Þorláki ok Katli, ok sýndak bæði þeim ok Sæmundi presti.” On the topos of commission in Íslendingabók and its implications, see Tómasson, Sverrir, “Tækileg vitni,” Afmælisrit Björns Sigfúsonar (Reykjavík: Leiftur, 1975), 251287.

32 Íslenzk fornrit I, 23. The editor of the standard edition of the Book of Icelanders, Jakob Benediktsson, considers the reference to Guðmundr to be a later insertion (Íslenzk fornrit I, xvii–xviii) but the argument for this is mainly that it “disrupts the natural flow of the narrative” (Ic. rýfur eðlilegt samhengi frásagnarinnar), and the present author confesses to having no idea what this means. Indeed, if the information about Guðmundr is deemed to be an insertion, it then has to be explained why a scribe (or Ari himself) would insert information about Guðmundr but leave out the lawspeakers that succeeded him. See also Arnórsson, Einar, Ari fróði (Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 1942), 30. On the foreign models for the prologue of Ari, see Sverrir Tómasson, “Tækileg vitni.”

33 Íslenzk fornrit I, 14.

34 Hjalti Hugason, “Mat og túlkun á kristnitökufrásögn Ara prests Þorgilssonar,” Frændafundur 3 (2000), 11–20.

35 Orri Vesteinsson, The Christianization of Iceland, 18.

36 Hjalti Hugason: Frumkristni og upphaf kirkju, 97.

37 Íslenzk fornrit I, 17. “þat mun verða satt, ef vér slítum í sundr lǫgin, at vér munum slíta ok friðinn.”

38 Íslenzk fornrit I, 17. “Þá vas þat mælt í lǫgum, at allir menn skyldi kristnir vesa ok skírn taka, þeir es áðr váru óskírðir á landi hér; en of barnaútburð skyldu standa in fornu lǫg ok of hrossakjötsát. Skyldu menn blóta á laun, ef vildu, en varða fjǫrbaugsgarðr, ef váttum of kvæmi við. En síðarr fám vetrum vas sú heiðni af numin sem ǫnnur.”

39 See Sveinbjörn Rafnsson, “Um kristnitökufrásögn Ara prests Þorgilssonar,” Skírnir 153 (1979), 167–174.

40 Self, Kathleen M., “Remembering our Violent Conversion: Conflict in the Icelandic Conversion Narrative,” Religion 40 (2010): 182–92, 183–184.

41 On the political nature of the settlement see, Jenny Jochens, “Late and Peaceful: Iceland's Conversion through Arbitration in 1000”: Speculum 74 (1999), 621–655; Hjalti Hugason, “Mat og túlkun á kristnitökufrásögn Ara fróða,” 16–17.

42 Weber, Gerd Wolfgang, “Intellegere historiam: Typological Perspectives of Nordic Prehistory (in Snorri, Saxo, Widukind and others),” Tradition og historieskrivning: Kilderne til Nordens ældste historie, Acta Jutlandica 63.2, ed. Hastrup, Kirsten and Sørensen, Preben Meulengracht (Århus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 1987): 95141, 116.

43 Haki Antonsson, “Traditions of Conversion in Medieval Scandinavia,” 33–37.

44 Roland Scheel interprets the narrative in The Book of the Icelanders as a rebuttal against the view that the Norwegian king was responsible for the conversion, see Scheel, Roland, Lateineuropa und der Norden. Die Geschichtsschreibung des 12. Jahrhunderts in Dänemark, Island und Norwegen, Frankfurter Kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge, 6 (Berlin: trafo Wissenschaftsverlag, 2012), 139.

45 Íslenzk fornrit I, 15.

46 Íslenzk fornrit I, 18.

47 See Konrad Maurer, Die Bekehrung des Norwegischen Stammes zum Christenthume, in ihrem geschichtlichen Verlaufe quellenmäßig geschildert, 2 vols, Munich: C. Kaiser: 1855–1856, I, 597–598.

48 Íslenzk fornrit I, 20–21.

49 Ibid., 19–20.

50 Mundal, Else, “Íslendingabók vurdert som bispestolskronike,” Alvísmál 3 (1994), 6372. See also Mundal, Else, “Íslendingabók: The Creation of an Icelandic Christian Identity,” Historical Narratives and Christian Identity on a European Periphery: Early History Writing in Northern, East-Central, and Eastern Europe (c. 1070–1200), ed. Garipzanov, Ildar (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 111121.

51 This has mostly been ignored by modern historians, although there are important exceptions, see Gustafsson, “Islands kristnande,”  21–27.

52 Papaconstantinou, Arietta, “Introduction,” in Conversion in Late Antiquity: Christianity, Islam, and Beyond: Papers from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar, University of Oxford, 2009–2010, ed. Papaconstantiou, Arietta (London: Routledge 2016), xvxxxvii, at p. xxvii.

53 “Where Ari is lacking, however, other sources are used, both to embellish Ari's narrative and to provide information where he gives none . . . . The impression we are left with is that of a careful historian handling a large number of sources, struggling like his successors to interpret the material at his disposition and fit it into a historical mould.” Siân Grønlie, “Kristni Saga and Medieval Conversion History,” Gripla 16 (2005): 137–160, 148.

54 See Jakobsson, Sverrir, “Hauksbók and the Construction of an Icelandic World View,” Saga-Book 21 (2007): 2238.

55 See Grønlie, Siân, “Conversion Narrative and Christian Identity: How Christianity Came to Iceland,” Medium Aevum 86 (2017): 123146, 131.

56 Íslenzk fornrit I, 396. “Svá segja vitrir menn, at nǫkkurir landnámsmenn hafi skírðir verit, þeir er byggt hafa Ísland, flestir þeir, er kómu vestan um haf. Er til þess nefndr Helgi magri ok Ørlygr enn gamli, Helgi bjóla, Jǫrundr kristni, Auðr djúpauðga, Ketill enn fíflski ok enn fleiri menn, er kómu vestan um haf, ok heldu þeir sumir vel kristni til dauðadags. En þat gekk óvíða í ættir, því at synir þeira sumra reistu hof ok blótuðu, en land var alheiðit nær hundraði vetra.” This episode was most likely derived from Sturlubók, a version of the Book of Settlements written by the lawman Sturla Þórðarson in the 1270s and quoted by Haukr Erlendsson as one of his sources.

57 See Sveinbjörn Rafnsson, Sögugerð Landnámabókar. Um íslenska sagnaritun á 12. og 13. öld. Ritsafn Sagnfræðistofnunar 35 (Reykjavík: Sagnfræðistofnun Háskóla Íslands, 2001), 21–37, 73–78; Rafnsson, Sveinbjörn, Ólafs sögur Tryggvasonar. Um gerðir þeirra heimildir og höfunda (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan, 2005), 5762

58fór víða um Suðrlǫnd. Hann fann í Saxlandi suðr byskup þann er Friðrekr hét ok tók af honum skírn ok trú rétta ok var með honum um hríð. Þorvaldr bað byskup fara til Íslands með sér at skíra fǫður sinn ok móður ok aðra frændr sína, þá er hans ráði vildu fylgja. Byskup veitti honum þat. Þeir Friðrekr byskup ok Þorvaldr kómu til Íslands sumar þat er landit hafði byggt verit tíu tiga vetra ok sjau vetr.” Íslenzk fornrit XV. Biskupa sögur I, eds. Ólafur Halldórsson, Sigurgeir Steingrímsson and Peter Foote (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 2003), 4.

59 Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” The Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971), 80–101, 81.

60 Kathleen M. Self, “Remembering our Violent Conversion,” 183.

61 Íslenzk fornrit XV, 15–17.

62 Haki Antonsson, “Traditions of Conversion in Medieval Scandinavia,” 38.

63 Íslenzk fornrit XV, 37.  “Þar er hann grafinn í fjalli einu at kirkju Johannis baptiste, ok kalla þeir hann helgan.”

64 Siân Grønlie, “Kristni Saga and Medieval Conversion History,” 152.

65 Ibid., 150.

66 For a further discussion on these differences, see Foote, Peter, “Historical Studies: Conversion Moment and Conversion Period,” in Viking Revaluations: Viking Society Centenary Symposium 14–15 May 1992, ed. Faulkes, Anthony and Perkins, Richard (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 1993), 137144; Siân Grønlie, “Kristni saga and Medieval Conversion History.”

67 Íslenzk fornrit XV, 28.

68 Self, Kathleen M., “Conversion as Speech Act: Medieval Icelandic and Modern Neopagan Conversion NarrativesHistory of Religions 56:2 (2016), 167–97, 180.

69 Kathleen M. Self, „Remembering our Violent Conversion”, p. 190.

70 Íslenzk fornrit XV, 33. “Þá tóku heiðnir menn til orðs: ‘Eigi er undr í at guðin reiðisk tǫlum slíkum.’ Þá mælti Snorri goði: ‘Um hvat reiddusk guðin þá er hér brann hraunit er nú stǫndu vér á?’”

71 The daughter of Snorri, Þuríðr, was one of the main informants of Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók. See Íslenzk fornrit I, 4. In spite of that, in that source there is no mention of Snorri taking part in the debate about Christianization.

72 Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar en mesta. Editiones Arnamagnæanæ, Ser. A. Volumes 1–3, ed. Ólafur Halldórsson, (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1958).

73 Íslenzk fornrit XV, 72, 84, 151.

74 On the hypothetical episode of Þorvaldr by Gunnlaugr Leifsson, see Sveinbjörn Rafnsson, Sögugerð Landnámabókar, 79–100.

75 Íslenzk fornrit XVI. Biskupa sögur II, ed. Ásdís Egilsdóttir (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 2002), 11.

76 Íslenzk fornrit XV, 132–133. “Harðla vel megum vit, því at sakir ellináttúru eru afllitlir limir okkrir. En þó allt at einu er í brotu allr sjúkleikr ok óhœgendi er okkr hefir lengi þyngt ok þrǫngt, en þar í móti er komin algǫr hvíld ok heilsa líkamans, því at allir okkrir limir ok liðir eru mjúkir ok hœgir hverr til sinnar þjónustu, því líkt sem vit sém orðnar ungar í annat sinn. Horfinn er ok allr uggr ok ótti ok lífs leiðendi, en vit hǫfum fengit fagnað ok gleði ok sanna ván eilífrar gleði ok ókominnar sælu.”

77 Kathleen M. Self, “Conversion as Speech Act,” 175.

78 See Jakobsson, Ármann, “Two Old Ladies at Þváttá and ‘History from below’ in the Fourteenth Century,” Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Papers of The 12th International Saga Conference, Bonn/Germany, 28th July–2nd August 2003, eds. Simek, Rudolf and Meurer, Judith (Bonn: Hausdruckerei der universität Bonn, 2003), 813.

79 On these dísir, see Ström, Folke, Diser, nornor, valkyrjor. Fruktbarhetskult och sakralt kungadöme i Norden (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1954); Gunnell, Terry, “The Season of the Dísir: The Winter Nights, and the Dísablót in Early Medieval Scandinavian Belief,” Cosmos 16 (2000), 117149; Jakobsson, Ármann, “Conversion and Sacrifice in the Þiðrandi Episode in Flateyjarbók,” Conversions: Looking for Ideological Change in the Early Middle Ages, Studia Medievalia Septentrionalia 23, eds. Simek, Rudolf and Słupecki, Lezek (Vienna: Fassbaender, 2013), 921.

80 Íslenzk fornrit XV, 123–124.

81 Íslenzk fornrit XV, 125.

82 Hjalti Hugason, Frumkristni og upphaf kirkju, 117.

83 Grønlie, Siân, “’Reading and Understanding’: The Miracles in Þorvalds þáttr ens víðfǫrla,” The Journal of English and German Philology 112 (2013): 475494, 481–482.

84 Hughes, Shaun F. D., “Klári saga as an Indigenous Romance,” in Romance and Love in Late Medieval and Early Modern Iceland, Islandica 54, eds. Wolf, Kirsten and Denzin, Johanna (Ithaca: Cornell University Library, 2008): 135164.

85 Sigurdson, Erika, The Church in Fourteenth-Century Iceland: The Formation of an Elite Clerical Identity. The Northern World 72 (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 44.

86 See Gransden, Antonia, Historical Writing in England c. 550–c.1307 (New York: Routledge, 1996): 426444.

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