Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Salvation Army Guesthouse Presents: Feud in St. Olaf's Saga

Today, we will be talking about feud in the Saga of Saint Olaf from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla--specifically the incident between Þórir Hound and King Ólaf. And you get to enjoy the story with this helpful power point brought to you by my housemates at the Salvation Army!

Now, first you might be wondering what a feud actually is. Well, nobody seems to be able to agree on it. Two of the most prominent names in the field, Jesse Byock and William Ian Miller, have a list of about 30 accumulative ideas that can construct a feud. 

In extremely general terms, we are talking about ongoing hostilities between two parties. The Icelandic sagas are filled to the brim with feuds. This is not surprising, as Iceland during the Commonwealth era had no executive, coercive force to implement justice. It was basically up to the injured party to punish the offender. Well, you can see how this could snowball into a generation-long exchange of violence. Njals Saga is perhaps the cleanest look at a feud, with the two sides striking each other almost annually, and the violence climbs the social ladder--starting out with some low level scum and heading right up to some pretty prominent people!

But in the Saga of St. Olaf, we have something a little more unique. In this part of the saga, there is an ongoing feud between a king and a powerful magnate. In order to understand how this feud took shape, it's better to understand the climate of Norway at the time of King Ólaf. 

Ólaf is setting himself up as King of all Norway. However, he is moving away from this pre-modern concept of personal kingship based on friendship and gift-giving. In the past, the king would become friends with the strong aristocrats. Friendship at this time was a more of a political and social institution rather that your BFF relationship nowadays. This time period of the Middle Ages (around 1000-1200) you can see kings moving away from this personal kingship to a more absolute, bureaucratic kingship with a strict hierarchy. In this tale with King Ólaf and Þórir Hound and his kinsmen Erling, we can see up close these two traditions colliding, as the aristocracy is fighting King Ólaf´s new policy--a kingship without generosity or the reciprocity of friendship.

The backdrop of this story is that there is a great famine in the north of Norway. King Ólaf has forbidden the sale of grain from the south to the north. It's also important to know that the King has a very tense relationship with Erling Skjálgsson, a very prominent and powerful magnate. Ólaf does not trust this guy and actually sent some of his men to spy on him and try to reduce his influence.

And so it begins with a young man named Ásbjorn, a kinsmen to both Þórir Hound and Erling. This dude loves throwing parties, but he is getting hit pretty hard by the famine. So he decides to go visit a different Þórir (aka Þórir Seal) and ask him, despite the king's order, to sell him some grain so he can keep up his lavish lifestyle.

Þórir Seal gives Ásbjorn the big thumbs down.  He is definitely a king's man and is not going to defy the order not to sell grain. So Ásbjorn continues down the river until he comes to Erling's farm. He asks his kinsmen to sell him some grain. 

Erling has had enough trouble with the king at this point and says that he can't PERSONALLY sell him anything. BUT, he found a way around the order and has his thralls, or servants, who are not legally under this ordinance, to sell Ásbjorn some grain. 

On his way back home, however Ásbjorn gets stopped by Þórir Seal, who confiscates everything he just bought in the name of the king! This is important on a couple points. First, Þórir is convinced that Erling is behind this, that he once again is defying King Ólaf. Secondly, Ásbjorn loses a lot of honor. The sagas make it clear that if you go on on errand like this and come back empty handed, you are a chump. In this case, he becomes a chump (indirectly) at the king's hands. 

A little while later, Ásbjorn gets invited to spend Yule with his kinsman Þórir Hound (different Þórir. Hang tight there is a third coming up!). 

Ásbjorn refuses the invitation and incurs a lot of ridicule from Þórir Hound, who makes fun of him for losing so much honor at the hand of Þórir Seal. This festers in poor little Ásbjorn until he finds an opening to avenge said honor. 

So he kills Þórir Seal! Unfortunately, he murdered him in the presence of King Ólaf AND on a holiday. Double whammy! Ásbjorn is immediately arrested. Remember, the king assumes Erling is behind all of this. 

Erling's son then comes to the king and asks to pay compensation for Þórir's death. This is a critical step in a feud. The interventions of third parties is an essential step in reconciliation. However, it doesn't always work. And in this case, the king refuses to accept Erling's son's bargain. At this point Erling finally does intervene. He and his son bust Ásbjorn out of jail. He probably wanted to stay out of this whole thing! But he is dragged in. 

Now another third party advocate gets involved. The Bishop! He gets Erling and King Ólaf to reluctantly agree on some peace terms. This deal includes Ásbjorn taking over Þórir Seal's office and estate. So now he works for the king! 

When mean, ol' Þórir Hound catches wind of this deal, he tears into poor Ásbjorn AGAIN! He convinces Ásbjorn to abandon his newly appointed post, due to all the honor he has lost. I mean, to go work for the dude who was ultimately responsible for all your embarrassment! What a rube!


There are a couple strange things here. One, why does Þórir Hound keep goading this guy? What purpose does serve? Not to foreshadow too much, but it does come back to bite him (see next two slides). Secondly, King Ólaf does not order this killing. He is certainly pleased with the outcome! But this raises the question as to how much he is involved in this feud. Is he pulling the strings? The framework of this feud is not anywhere close to the beautifully symmetric, body-for-body scheme of Njals Saga. The lines are pretty vague. 

While attending Ásbjorn's funeral, Þórir Hound receives a nice gift from Ásbjorn's mommy: the spear that took his life. Now, this exchange is more than symbolic. Mom is giving a gift with the expectation of a reciprocal act- in this case vengeance for her son. Þórir realizes this and is not happy about it, but it is kind of his fault that Ásbjorn is dead so he takes the spear grudgingly and has to figure out how to get vengeance on a powerful king. He begins this mission by killing one of the king's body guards, and robbing and sinking a ship also belonging to the king. 

The king responds to these moves by sending Finn Árnason (KALF'S BROTHER!) to collect compensation. Finn demands an outrageous amount of money for these crimes and humiliates Þórir in front of his men. This is an example of what Helgi Þorlaksson describes as non-violent strike. Many times the feud is presumed to be a blood-feud and that the exchanges are solely violent. Here we have the king striking a blow that is probably more powerful than a murder. Þórir has to go ask his men for money and even then cannot come up with enough. In one swoop, King Ólaf destroys Þórir's honor. So now, he's in quite a pickle. One of Jesse Byock's features of feuds is shaming/removal of shame. Þórir needs to remove this shame. But how? He does not have the manpower nor the resources to take on the King of Norway. The answer, it seems, lies across the North Sea in England with. . . 

Sverre Bagge talks a lot in his book about having to be aware of the political considerations when it comes to pursuing vengeance, or really any self-serving political movement. In Þórir's case, he was stuck between his obligation to avenge Ásbjorn and his total humiliation at the hands of the king. He found his answer in King Knút. The king of Denmark and England had long been threatening to overtake Norway and was a real threat to King Ólaf. Other Norwegian aristocrats had taken this route of leaving the country to join Knút. This was really Þórir's only option to fulfill his obligations to his kinsmen and to his own political ends. 

Up this point King Ólaf has been kind of a jerk but not necessarily a terrible king. Yet the last straw for a lot of magnates was the killing of Þórir (number 3!), a young man and kinsmen to Þórir Houng and Erling, who was bribed by King Knút to rise up against King Ólaf. Kálf and other powerful men begged the king not to murder this young man, but the king did not listen. No generosity, no friendship shown in any of these instances. This was a strange step in the feud exchange. The king kills this young man as a move in the feud, yet he was not a step up from Ásbjorn, nor did he provide any real clout. It just made lot of people mad. And some of those people joined up with. . .

Knút! He takes over Norway. Þórir Hound comes back to Norway in order to get his vengeance. 

King Ólaf fled but soon returned. He and his men cornered Erling, and one of his men, a newly established man who had no real respected lineage, kills Erling. Again, this was not on the king's orders. Is the feud out of his hands? More importantly, some line seems to have been crossed here. The king says at the death of Erling, "Now the kingdom of Norway has been struck from my hands." Or something like that. The point is that Erling was not supposed to die. Ólaf needed him to re-secure the kingdom. So we can see here some glimpse of a limitation to feuding, something that is very elusive in our sources. 

Speaking of limitations! When Kálf is gathering forces against the king in preparation of the Battle of Stiklestad, he asks Þórir Hound to lead the army. Þórir refuses and appears only interested in fulfilling  his obligations, not in an all out revolution. Again, there seems to be some kind of limitation to the feud. What these limitations are will be the subject of the paper I will be writing on this particular subject. BUT! Þórir Hound gets his revenge by stabbing and assisting in killing King Ólaf during the battle. Thus ends the feud, at least according to the saga. 

You can see a few of the classic hallmarks of Icelandic feud, some of Byock's and Miller's lists, but there is also a lot of nuance and hazy lines, probably because this isn't a feud between two chieftains. Snorri's Heimskringla is a commentary on good/bad kingship, a topic that seems to have consumed him and Icelanders during the 13th century as they transitioned from the Commonwealth period to being subjects to the Norwegian crown. There were surely mixed feelings about this transition. Snorri himself appears to have balked when the Norwegian King charged him with submitting Norway in his name, a move that ultimately led to Snorri's death. So even if Snorri had ideas of kingship, they were still not ultimately black and white. 


  Jesse Byock, „ Defining feud“. Feud in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Ed. J.B Netterstrøm & 
  B. Poulsen (2007), 95-111.

  Helgi Þorláksson, „Feud and feuding ...“ Feud in Medieval and Early Modern Europe . Ed. J.B   
  Netterstrøm & B. Poulsen (2007), 69-94.

  Snorri Sturluson - "Saint Olaf's Saga," Heimsrkingla, trans. Lee Hollander, 1962

  Sverre Bagge, „Snorri as a political historian“. Snorri Sturluson and the Roots of Nordic Litereture 
  (2004), 110-16.  

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