Medieval Romance in Iceland

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The Culture of the Saga Writers
The more lectures on Iceland I attend, the more disillusioned I become. That’s because I didn’t grow up with any knowledge about Iceland. Instead, I grew up with local village legends. You know, Iceland had the first democracy in the world. Everyone in Iceland was equal. There was so little crime that there was no need of police. Iceland was so isolated that Icelanders were one hundred percent Scandinavian. The Eddas and the Sagas, when we heard them mentioned, were purely Icelandic. The Sagas were a hundred percent historic.

Those village legends were all wrong, of course. Part of it was romanticism, part idealism, part nostalgia, part just not knowing Icelandic history or literature.

Still, Dr. Torfi Tilinius’s last lecture for the Richard and Margaret Beck Trust have left me discombobulated.

Normally, in fiction, film, tourism advertising, re-enactments, it is all about the Vikings portrayed in the sagas. It never is about the people who wrote the sagas. Dr. Tilinius lecture gave us a cram-packed look at the people who wrote those sagas. The Vikings didn’t write them. Icelanders two hundred years after the saga events wrote them. We may not know, for certain, there were no copyright rules in those days, who wrote a specific saga but we know a lot about the society of the time. What were those Icelanders like, those who had the talent and ability, the resources, the interest, in writing the sagas. They weren’t those mythic figures murdering and enslaving, burning and butchering. There was still lots of conflict in Icelandic society as powerful land owners struggled for power but much else was also happening.

This third lecture was on Medieval Romances in Iceland: Old Norse translation from Old French. I know it sounds a bit esoteric but I think everybody in the Icelandic North American community should have been there to hear it. It would change the image of Iceland for a lot of people.

The sagas were written in the 13th century. That was two hundred years after the events many of them recount. They were about pagans but written by Christians. Those Christians were educated. They could read and write. They had the time, the resources and the interest needed to have a cultured life. Their interests extended far beyond the boundaries of Iceland. The breadth of that interest can be seen in the large number of translations into Icelandic from a number of other languages.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of these translations into Norse. In some cases, the original of the translation has disappeared in the host country. There are pieces of French literature, for example, that have been lost but we know about them because they exist in Icelandic.

We hear about the Vikings raising and trading but we seldom hear about the tremendous amount of travel between Iceland and other countries like France and Germany, not just Norway, Denmark and Sweden.

This all raises questions about how and why the translations were done. Who did them? How did the translations change the original? Something Torfi didn’t mention but I’ve heard in other lectures was the tremendous cost of creating a book, either an original or a copy. Vellum was used. Vellum means made from a calf (calfskin). If a rich farmer wanted a book, he needed to be able to kill a lot of calfs, have their skins tanned and treated, then pay someone to write a narrative or copy it painstakingly by hand. In spite of this, there were a lot of different types of documents that were translated: treatises on grammar and rhetoric, religion, literature, homilies, saints’ lives, poetry, the science of the day, historical, and romance literature. This points to a vibrant culture but also one with the resources necessary to have these tasks done.

In the 12th C. Latin began to give way to the vernacular, the language spoken by the local people. There were stories of courtly love. In the 13th C. Alexandrs Saga from Latin was very popular. From the French came Chansens de geste, Charlamagne, etc.

Kingdoms were being established and with them a system of nobility. The kings needed to control ambitious nobles. Royalty supported literature because they saw it as a way to control those powerful nobles. The nobles sent their sons to court and that controlled what they were taught.

Torfi gave examples of important works that had been translated into Icelandic. One he mentioned was The Ethics of Empire. He thinks it was most probably presented by an Icelander as a gift to the King of Norway in the winter of 1262-63. The Icelandic bishop Brandr Jónnson had just been appointed bishop at Holar by the Norwegian hierarchy. 1262 was also the year that Iceland succumbed to pressure and became part of Norway.
What was most fascinating was Torfi´s discussion of how sections of some sagas appear to be borrowed from many kinds of literature. I had learned that the sagas were not pure history and that they were affected by outside influences but Torfi made this very specific when he took us through an original story and then through the episode in the saga that was derived from it.

Incidents being borrowed from other literatures, lays, chansons de geste, romances being available and known among the wealthy, powerful Icelandic families. Large amounts of translation into Icelandic. Once again, my image of Icelanders and their history was modified, expanded. So much for my childhood image of what it meant to be of Icelandic. To us it meant battling around the yard with swords made of lathe as we pretended to be Vikings. That left a lot out.