English Kingship in the Saga Age: Memory, Transmission and the Evolution of Narrative

Author: Matthew Firth

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 24 Oct 2024.

Firth, Matthew, 2022 English Kingship in the Saga Age: Memory, Transmission and the Evolution of Narrative, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The Íslendingasögur are a collection of around forty texts committed to writing in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They purport to relate the lives and adventures of Iceland’s leading heroes and families during the Saga Age, a period that begins with the settlement of the island in the late ninth century and ends along with the Viking Age in the late eleventh century. Included within these texts are thirty episodes, of greater or lesser detail, relating travel to England. The most prominent of these are found in the skáldasögur, a subset of texts that focus on the biographies of Iceland’s foremost poets. Egill Skallagrímsson attends the court of King Æthelstan (d. 939), Gunnlaugr Ormstungu twice visits King Æthelred II (d. 1016), while Bjǫrn Hítdœlakappi spends two years in the retinue of King Knútr inn ríki (the great) (d. 1035). This thesis sets out to explore the relationship between these depictions of Viking Age England, its kings, courts, and societies, and the historical record.

While the Íslendingasögur present themselves as histories, they are difficult historical sources. The corpus is highly intertextual and conventional, both displaying the interventions of generations of Icelandic storytellers and responding to thirteenth-century or later historiographical practices. In short, they are disconnected from their setting. This thesis proposes methodological approaches to the study of the Íslendingasögur as historical literature that bring historical and literary analysis together with elements of cultural studies, anthropology, archaeology, and cultural memory theory. In so doing, it is not concerned with simply correlating saga narrative against the historical and archaeological record of tenth- and eleventh-century England, but with interrogating the processes through which Íslendingasögur portrayals of England arrived at their textual redactions. In taking this approach, this thesis seeks answers to three key questions. Firstly, to what extent do Íslendingasögur narratives preserve the history or social contexts of Saga Age England? Secondly, what processes of cultural contact informed the centuries-long transmission of stories of Anglo-Scandinavian contact during this period? Lastly, to what extent do cultural, political, and social values of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Iceland permeate the narratives as they relate to England?

Keywords: medieval history, medieval literature, Old Norse, kingship, medieval Iceland, medieval England, Icelandic sagas

Subject: Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Erin Sebo