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Were Icelandic Sagas Sleazy Tabloids?

Were Icelandic Sagas Sleazy Tabloids?

By Yoav Tirosh

While Icelandic sagas might not be written in a sensational tone, they are often filled with rumors, gossip and various love lives. 

Picture this: A doctoral student researching the Icelandic sagas at the last leg of his thesis writing sits in a café with his best friend. She tells him that, in her opinion, the sagas were actually written as tabloids of the Viking Age, reporting who killed who, who slept with who, and who hated who. The doctoral student, understandably, does not take it well. Fighting ensues, harsh words are exchanged, and friendships are shattered.

Said doctoral student was, as the attentive reader might have guessed, actually myself. The identity of the friend will not be revealed, but the first letter of her name is Ð. After getting upset, I gave the matter some thought and realised that my ex-friend was–in fact–correct. As Chris Wickham shows, the sagas certainly feature gossip, and a lot of it, and one’s status was very much influenced by the way that they were talked about and the way that they talked about others!

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While the Icelandic sagas usually keep quiet about people’s emotions, they certainly do not keep shy about the matters that interest tabloids the most: that is the character’s love life, what they said about the people that they hate, and what they did to humiliate them.

Now that I am convinced, I realize that I need to convince you as well! One example is my all-time third favorite saga, Ljósvetninga saga. One day, Guðmundr is forced to attend a wedding at the cursed valley of Hörgardalur. There, while the hosts treat him with the respect he believes he deserves, his wife Þórlaug’s experience is somewhat different: An argument is sparked regarding the order in which she and Geirlaug – the local chieftain’s wife – should be served water. This quickly escalates into Geirlaug saying that there are rumors going around in the district questioning Guðmundr inn ríki’s masculinity. The rest of Guðmundr’s life – at least in the saga – seems to revolve around him trying to get back at the men who circulated these rumors. He exiles one, and the other is killed when Guðmundr invades his home. What people said about you mattered (and still matters) quite a bit.

Like tabloids and other yellow journalism, the sagas often dwell on the characters’ clothes, their apparel, and their house’s interior design. We even hear about where people get their clothes; Ljósvetninga saga begins with Hákon Jarl sending Guðmundr inn ríki and Þorgeirr Ljósvetningagoði some slick foreign clothes, Hrafnkels saga describes the clothes of Þorkell who had newly returned from the fashionable Constantinople, and Brennu-Njáls saga’s (The Sagas of Njáll the Burner) Gunnar of Hlíðarendi’s career in killing other farmers begins because he incurred people’s jealousy by dressing up in fine clothes he brought from his travels as a Viking.

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The sagas also tell us who functioned as the main reporters of medieval times. In a pivotal scene of Brennu-Njáls saga a group of beggar-women arrive at Hlíðarendi and relate the news from Njáll’s farmstead. Njáll, according to these women, “stritaðisk hann við at sitja”, which Sebastian Thoma translates as “struggled to sit”. Thoma frames this in the context of sexual defemation, implying that Gunnar might have played a role in Njáll’s difficulty sitting. While insults to one’s masculinity are of course a powerful force in the Icelandic sagas, the gossip is also interesting because it hints at a relationship between Gunnar and Njáll: nothing is more interesting than a love affair between two powerful men against their family’s wishes.

Gossip in and of itself could often cause violence in medieval Icelandic society. For example, when in Gísla saga a jealous husband overhears talk of a love affair between his wife and a frenemy, family relations fall apart and violence disrupts future family dinners. In Flóamanna saga, when a group of Icelanders queuing for the toilet in Greenland start comparing whose leader is the best, insults start flying and people come to blows.

But my friend was even more correct about the contemporary sagas (samtíðarsögur), texts written in the thirteenth century about the twelfth and thirteenth century, which often involved the authors’ relatives or, most notably with Sturla Þórðarson, the authors themselves. These texts are known for being excruciatingly detailed; if you thought that reading an Icelandic saga genealogy was tough then the name-dropping in the contemporary sagas will indubitably spin your head around. These sagas are entirely built on rumors and gossip, reporting about noteworthy weddings, friendships, visits abroad, and burnings, stories that shaped and were shaped by living memory as a way of dealing with trauma and preserving knowledge.

What the Viking and contemporary Icelandic sagas do lack, though, is the flair and fanfare that are so common in yellow journalism. These texts are written in a dark, laconic and almost melancholy tone, and they more often than not avoid sensationalism. At the end of the day, the reason that I got upset at my friend’s comparison was that in my mind, the Icelandic sagas are a unique, almost sacred corpus of texts, not comparable in any way to sleezy tabloids. It is this same impulse that made me drunkenly confront Grayson del Faro, the author of Sagas and Shit in a public toilet, in a quote that ended up becoming a blurb for his (hilarious) book.

With time I came to realize that the sagas are not sacred, and that generic exclusivity was not common in medieval Iceland, so adopting it only closes me off to various elements of reading these texts. Yes, people read the sagas to laugh at the silly things that their ancestors did. Yes, people read the sagas to learn who loved who the most, and who hated who the least. As del Faro shows, the sagas provide all of this in abundance, and I really shouldn’t take them too seriously, if I want to take them seriously.

I also really should give that friend a ring and see what she’s up to.

Dr. Yoav Tirosh is a postdoctoral researcher focusing on disability in the sagas of Icelanders at the Centre for Disability Studies, in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Iceland. He is also an external member of CVM (Center for Vikingetid og Middelalder) at Aarhus University. He creates the Viking Comics by Yoav webcomic about life in Iceland and Vikings. Click here to view his Academia.edu page. You can learn more about his comics on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter @RealMundiRiki.

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Top Image: Folio from Flateyjarbok – Wikimedia Commons

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