As the key description of the battle of Fulford comes from
the historical work that is attributed to Snorri Sturluson. It is worth
exploring his life and his working methods to establish his claim to be a
historian as this study can inform the reliance that we be place on his
reporting. It is an interesting story of the spread of reading and writing as a
skill for the governing class, coupled with a decline in the comprehension and transmission
of the oral histories.
Biography of Snorri Sturluson
Snorri was a native of Iceland, born in 1178. He was fostered at the age three by Jon Loptsson who was the most powerful chieftain of Iceland at the time. This offer to foster Snorri arose as part of a legal settlement that Jon had been asked to arbitrate. Snorri's father, Sturla, died soon after this settlement. The household at Oddi where Snoori grew up was the centre of secular and religious study.[i]
Snorri had reached manhood before his foster-father died and he then married two years later, in 1199. His wife was the daughter of Bersi ‘the Rich’. This was a good marriage for Snorri whose lack of fortune would have excluded him from positions of power. Snorri’s actions and life choices indicate that he was more than simply ambitious. He coveted wealth and power.
After Bersi’s death, which occurred a few years after Snorri’s marriage, he moved to the farm also called Bersi. This farm had been owned some centuries before by the saga-hero Egil Skallagrimsson whose exploits are recorded in Egil’s Saga. The marriage broke down and they separated.
But Snorri was by now established and he obtained the position of Lawspeaker, a position that exploited his knowledge of the laws which he recognised as an adjunct to the power that could be exerted by the force of arms which he did not possess. It is probable that he had begun to assemble written records by this stage in his career in part as a legal archivist but he is already noted as a student of poetry and an expert in the work of past masters.
Shortly after his first term as Lawspeaker, Snorri visited Norway and he began work on ‘Heimskringla’ (Literally ‘The world’s orb’) which has the more accurate title of ‘The Sagas of the Norwegian Kings’ when he returned to Iceland. The consensus is that he finished this work in 1235. But during the 15 years it took to compile this work, he was also at the height of his political power, serving another term as Lawspeaker and he is recorded as making another visit to the Norwegian court. He is known to have submitted unsolicited verses to the King of Norway perhaps in the hope of securing the honourable position of skald at court. Snorri was evidently a good student but not a master of the skadic form of poetry in which past events and famous deeds were recorded at that time.
“He was a brilliant interpreter of skaldic poetry, an indigenous Scandinavian form of verse, but only a minor practitioner of the art. Skaldic poetry was, however, of paramount importance to Snorri as a writer. His conversance with the poems extant in his time was one of the wellsprings of his work. To him the literary excellence of skaldic poems meant more than enjoyment. Since his contemporaries found it increasingly difficult to understand skaldic poetry and to master its essentials, he sought to assure its survival. He therefore set down and explained in his Prose Edda the complex meters of skaldic poetry and its metaphoric conventions.” [ii]
By understanding the conventions and allusions of the ‘praise-poems’, Snorri was able to access the layers of meaning contained in these source, even though the words needed interpretation for the contemporary audience. This is an important point since the complex allusions which relied on a mythology that the new faith had supplanted meant that the meaning of past skalds had to be interpreted to be comprehensible by the time Snorri was writing.
“For Snorri, skaldic poems were also signal historical sources, for many were composed by court poets contemporary to the events commemorated and conscious of their obligation to uphold historic veracity. Accordingly he cited skaldic verses to buttress his saga accounts with trustworthy source material and coincidentally preserved some of the most brilliant and histoRiccally important poems of the Viking and post-Viking eras.”[iii]
And the skalds were not bystanders who related events that had been described to them. We hear of Olaf and Harald ensuring that those who were reporting the event were beside them in the battle. These people were performing for posterity.
It is not only their proximity to events that makes skalds good observers but the censure that would ensue if their report was not accurate. While they might inflate the role of their paymaster and make kings the focus of their narrative, skalds were bound to stick with the facts that many of their audience would also know.
“Snorri’s own extensive knowledge of the art of skaldic verse is so impressively confirmed by his Edda that his interpretation of skaldic verse as historical record must be accounted more reliable than that of other saga-makers,..” noting that Snorri quotes his sources as a ‘subtle indication as to the authority’ of his own record.[iv]
But it is the inclusion of some of mythological material of his early works that open Snorri to the criticism of his historical integrity. However, the reporting of Christian miracles can be found in the writing of many early historians so we need to make allowance for both myth and miracle of most ancient chroniclers.
Snorri was unambiguously a Christian and recognised its guiding role in future events and this leads him to providing that perspective in his commentary but the ‘lawspeaker’ and skadic scholar respects the facts. Once Christianity had been imposed in Norway, Snorri employs the new faith as the source of wisdom, displacing Odin.
“By insisting on explanations in purely human terms and on linking together events in a logical way, Snorri appears more familiar to modern readers of history than his clerical contemporaries” [v]
His motives for undertaking the writing of his histories are not addressed anywhere but the early 13th century saw many sagas being written or perhaps recorded
“With the apprehension of a poet, educated at a school at which book learning was prized, [Snorri] felt compelled to commit to parchment the myths and heroic stories used in poetry and skaldic stanzas which illustrated poetic matter and distinct verse forms. He thus attempted to revive an ancient art which could survive no longer by oral transmission.”[vi]
In this respect, the role of Snorri could find a rough parallel in the work of the lexicographer, Sam Johnson. Both recognised their role as ‘harmless drudge’ in the services of letters.
“The consensus is that the transmission of Snorri's
name as the author of Heimskringla was oral. Sagas
of Kings, even though reshaped by a gifted writer of Snorri's stature, were communal
works to be recited to an audience rather than read in the quietude of a cell or
a secluded corner in the hall of an Icelandic farmstead.”
‘Ownership’ of the story has been ascribed to Snorri,
rather than claimed by him, although he undertook 15 years of drudgery to make
sure that the literature, and especially the lessons to be derived from history,
could be accessed by the future.
As for his claim to be a historian, one biographer has written,
“Snorri's stature as a historian is rooted almost certainly in the teaching he received at Oddi. The learning of laws and genealogies required a devotion to accurate transmission of knowledge. But he also acquired an interest in contemporary events and particularly in the interconnections between Iceland and Norway, between Icelanders and the Norwegian kings and their chieftains. Jon had spent some time at the Norwegian court. His mother was an illegitimate daughter of King Magnus Bareleg. She was recognized as a member of the royal family in Jon's presence during the crowning of King Magnus Erlingsson by the Papal Legate, Stephen, in 1163. Jon spoke of this momentous event, as Snorri relates in Heimskringla. Jon's eyewitness accounts probably deepened Snorri's respect for truth in historical transmission, an intellectual standard which Snorri, as a mature historian, is admired in the work of Ari Borgilsson, the father of Icelandic historical writings, and in men of Ari's stature”[vii]
His work as a historian is inevitably open to some criticism. Although he removed many mythological attribution and excised the old gods as active participants in the drama, he is guilty of replacing them with his own interpretation of politics and the Christian religion. This does not detract from much of the information that is provided but Snorri’s writing on the motive and justice of events, needs to be filtered.
“Within this static system, the game of politics thus serves as a general framework of explanation. There is no reason to doubt Snorri’s belief in miracles and God’s intervention in history, nor in magic or other supernatural phenomena. But such phenomena play a subordinate part in his actual narrative because his main interest lies in the aspects of life which can be controlled by human effort and intelligence. Accordingly, Snorri gives by modern standards, a more rational explanation of the events than most of his European contemporaries.”[viii]
The downfall of Snorri was swift. The marriages of his three daughters were politically motivated and unhappy so the alliances with his sons-in-law were shortlived. Marriages at that time were contracted to strengthen alliances normally involving property agreements. Snorri’s reluctance to distribute any of the wealth and property he had single-mindedly accumulated, lost him the protection of his extended family.
A second visit to Norway revealed his driving, personal ambition as Norway faced civil war. Now his reliability as an ally was called into question. In 1239 Snorri returned to Iceland in defiance of the King Hakon Hakonarson, ban and a warrant that allowed for his execution followed. The details of the complex factional struggles are remarkably well documented. Two years later Snorri was slain in a killing organised by at lease one former son-in-law.
This was the inevitable fate for a man who had accumulated
so many enemies. Marlene Ciklamini sums up Snorri with these words:
“Snorri's ambition to be a great chieftain is revealed in
the first purposeful acts of early adulthood. He strove to accumulate power by
acquiring control over various thing-districts. Sturla shows Snorri at that
period in an unfavorable light. Snorri, it seems, was willing to exploit
enmities and cared little about questions of right and wrong in his quest for
stature. This deviousness was a two-edged sword Snorri employed throughout his
life. He was known to be fickle in his friendships and alliances and he fomented
rivalry and hostility. Power was more important to him than friendship and
kinship. Thus he failed to see the shortcomings inherent in pursuing power for
the sake of power, failings he had seen so clearly in kings he had characterized
As a historian, Snoori’s role is clear.
“..the answer to the question of the purpose of history
becomes very simple. In a society where a man is what he has achieved in the
eyes of other men, it is essential, both from [the] point of view of the actors
themselves and society as a whole, to record and make known the achievements of
It is possible to follow a literary trail leading to
Heimskringla and provide some context for his work. The Agrip, or ‘Summary of
the sagas of the Norwegian kings’, was composed before 1200 in Norway and this
makes reference to a Latin history in Niardos providing a ‘paper trail’ to
about a century after the battle of Fulford. Four recognised collections of
survive in copies or fragments and are dated to the early decades of the 13th
century, among them the Heimskringla. None of the authors can be ascribed with
certainty but this outbreak of recording, from what were probably independent
authors, suggests a contemporary process of scholarship.
The editorial rules under which they all operated are
recorded by Snorri. He was writing at a time when other European writers were
already romanticising history; we know that Matthew Paris travelled to Norway
within a few decades of Snorri so the Norse chroniclers would have been well
acquainted with this evolution in the recording of ‘history’.
‘In many respects, Snorri’s saga bear a resemblance to
medieval lives of saint, which themselves derive from oral traditions preserved
in monastic communities.’[xi]
Marsden notes that Snorri had a family connection to one of
Harald Hardrada’s companions, who did not accompany him on the 1066
expedition. Hallidor Snorrason returned to Iceland where he ‘earned great
renown as a tale-spinner’ and it might be some of these taller tales that
Snorri had in mind when he says of his methodology that ‘we are reluctant to
place on record stories which are not substantiated’.
There is scope to probe deeper, especially into the precise
interpretation Snorri provides when describing the battle. However, Snorri’s
work is seen as a reliable basis for the interpretation of the battle at
[i] Ciklmini quoting Halldor Hermannsson ‘Saemund Sigfusson and the Oddaverjag’ (Ithica 1932)
[ii] Marlene Ciklamini ‘Snorri Sturluson’0805763341 1978
[iii] Marlene Ciklamini ‘Snorri Sturluson’0805763341 1978
[iv] John Marsden Harald Hardrada, 9780750942911 2007
[v] Sverre Bagge ‘Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla’ 1991 0520068874
[vi] Marlene Ciklamini ‘Snorri Sturluson’0805763341 1978
[viii] Sverre Bagge ‘Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla’ 1991 0520068874 pp231
[ix] ibid pp216
[x] Morkinskinna (‘Mouldy vellum’), Fagrskinna (‘Fair vellum’), Heimskringla (The world’s orb’), and Flateyarbok (The book from the isle of Flatey).
[xi] John Marsden Harald Hardrada, 9780750942911 2007
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The author of the content is Charles Jones - firstname.lastname@example.org Last updated April 2015
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