Nordic Pioneers of Liberal Thought: Snorri Sturluson

Snorri Sturluson, a painting by Haukur Stefansson.

It is hardly surprising that one of the main sentiments shared by conservative liberals, a deep-rooted suspicion of potential despots, was prevalent in Medieval Iceland, Hannes H. Gissurarson writes in an essay about liberal heritage.

This remote island in the North Atlantic Ocean had been settled in the period from 874 to 930, mostly by farmers moving from Norway where one such despot, King Harold Finehair, had conquered the whole country and imposed new taxes on the population. Thus, Iceland can be said to have been the first tax haven, or, on a less charitable interpretation, a refugee camp. The settlers of the new country established a remarkable political order in 930, the Icelandic Commonwealth, under which they shared the same law, but managed without a central government, let alone a king or an aristocracy. “Apud illos non est rex, nisi tantum lex,” wrote the German chronicler Adam from Bremen in the 11th century: they have no king, except the law.1 The owners of the roughly 5,000 farms scattered around the island, mostly on or close to the coast, were members of two kinds of political communities. One was the commune, hreppur, which was territorial and not subject to choice, usually extending over a valley with at least twenty farms, administering the mountain pastures jointly utilised by the farmers and also providing mutual insurance against natural disasters.2 The other community was the chieftainship, godord: Iceland was divided into Quarters, with farmers in each Quarter being able to choose to which chieftain in their Quarter they would pledge allegiance. The 39 chieftains of the country were meant to execute the law and to protect the weak. They met every summer for two weeks at the Althing, or parliament, to hear cases and thus to interpret and sometimes, inevitably, to revise or to expand the law. Thus, the law of the Icelandic Commonwealth was privately developed and enforced, with each chieftainship operating as a protection association, or a nascent mini-state.3 The only public official of the Icelandic Commonwealth was the Lawspeaker, elected every third year by the chieftains. It was his task to recite the law at the Althing, one-third each year, and to counsel people in legal matters. After Iceland’s law was written down in early 11th century, the Lawspeaker’s counselling role became more important.

Snorri’s Life and Works

The best-known Lawspeaker of the Commonwealth, Snorri Sturluson, was also the author of seminal works in which conservative and liberal sentiments were expressed, Heimskringla, a history of political conflicts in Norway, and Egil’s Saga, one of the most-acclaimed sagas of the Icelanders. (The Icelanders do not have family names, Sturluson just indicating that Snorri was son of Sturla, so here he will be called by his first, and only, name.) Born in 1179, Snorri was the son of Gudny Bodvarsdaughter and her husband, a quarrelsome chieftain, Sturla Thordson of the farm Hvamm in Western Iceland. When Snorri was only three years old, the most powerful chieftain in Iceland, Jon Loftsson, interfered in one of Sturla’s numerous feuds, on behalf of his opponent. In order to ease the resulting tension, Jon offered to foster Sturla’s son Snorri at Oddi, where he lived, in Southern Iceland. For Snorri, this was a crucial move. At the time, Oddi was a site of learning and tradition: Jon Loftsson’s paternal grandfather, Saemund Sigfusson, had been a distinguished scholar. He had been educated abroad (in the German region of Franconia) and composed a (now lost) history of Norwegian kings. Even more remarkably, Jon Loftsson’s maternal grandfather was a Norwegian king, Magnus Barefoot, one of whose illegitimate daughters had married Jon’s father. At Oddi, Snorri developed an avid interest in ancient poetry, law and history. His fosterfather passed away in 1197 when Snorri was 18 years old, but with the assistance of his fosterbrothers, two years later he was able to marry an heiress, moving to her estate at Borg in Western Iceland and inheriting the chieftainship of her father. Later he divorced his wife and moved to Reykholt, also in the West where he was to live to the end of his life, while acquiring many other farms and chieftainships.

Snorralaug in Reykholt where Snorri used to sit in the evening with his guests and exchange with them stories about kings and poets.

Snorri soon became known and respected for his knowledge of the law, and when he was 36 years old, in 1215, he was elected Iceland’s Lawspeaker. He also wrote a lot of poetry, even compiling a handbook and anthology for aspiring poets, the so-called Edda of Snorri. There he gave a detailed account of Germanic mythology and demonstrated his own skill in composing various forms of verse. In 1218, Snorri went to Norway to pay his respects to the fourteen-year old King Haakon IV and to the regent, Earl Skuli Bardsson. The two rulers were keen to extend royal power to Iceland, which they considered an integral part of the Norse world. Whereas Orkney and Shetland and then the Faroe Islands had been annexed by the Norwegian king, in 875 and 1035 respectively, Iceland had remained independent, although with close cultural and economic ties to Norway. Snorri promised to bring their message to his compatriots. Because of skirmishes in Iceland between some chieftains and Norwegian merchants, Earl Skuli briefly considered sending an invasion force to the island, but Snorri managed to stil his anger. He and the Earl became friends, and Snorri was made a landed man, or baron, at the Norwegian Court. In the summer of 1219 he made a trip to Sweden and met with the Lawspeaker of West Gotland, Eskil Magnusson, and his wife, Kristina Nilsdaughter, the widow of a Norwegian ruler. After his return to Iceland in 1220 Snorri was again Lawspeaker from 1222 to 1231, but he did nothing to further the cause of the Norwegian king except providing protection to Norwegian merchants. Back in Reykholt he married the richest woman in Iceland, a widow, and wrote a work about Norwegian history, usually called Heimskringla (The Disc of the World) after the opening words in the Prologue: “The disc of the world that mankind inhabits is very indented with bays.”4 It is often said that Heimskringla is a history of the Norwegian kings, but in fact it is no less a history of the opposition to them, not only by potential rivals, but also by Norwegian chieftains and farmers some of whom emerge as strong, independent and occasionally admirable characters.

In Iceland, Snorri became embroiled in conflicts between competing chieftains, not least those belonging to his own family, the descendants of Sturla Thordson. Although Snorri was the richest man in Iceland at the time and long the country’s only elected official as Lawspeaker, time and again he hesitated to use force against his opponents, and in 1237 he decided to evade them by going again to Norway. Now however King Haakon IV was a grown man of 33 years and not only intent of ruling Norway without the help of Snorri’s friend Earl Skuli, but also of extending Norwegian power to Iceland and Greenland. When Snorri wanted to return to Iceland in 1239, King Haakon ordered him to stay, but Snorri disobeyed with the words, “Nevertheless, I will go home.”5 In the next two years in Reykholt Snorri wrote a saga about his forefather, the poet and warrior Egil Skallagrimsson, who in the 10th century had lived at Borg like Snorri and who had entered with vengeance into a longstanding feud between his own family and the Norwegian royal family. Meanwhile, in Norway King Haakon had Earl Skuli (who by now had become a Duke) killed after Skuli’s failed rebellion. The king also sent a secret letter to one of Snorri’s Icelandic rivals, Gissur Thorvaldsson, telling him either to bring Snorri to Norway or to have him killed. On Monday 23 September 1241, Gissur went with seventy men to Snorri’s residence, Reykholt. Taken by surprise, Snorri managed to hide in a cellar under a storeroom. A priest in his household was tricked into telling the attackers about his whereabouts, and five of Gissur’s men went down to the basement. When they approached Snorri, he exclaimed, “You shall not strike!” They killed him on the spot.6

Heimskringla: A Warning Against Kings

Snorri’s Heimskringla shows a keen awareness of the conflict in Norway between two kinds of law, the folk law and royal decrees. The ancient German conception of the law was that it was mainly customary. It was a common heritage, not unlike language, maintained in an oral tradition and to be discovered rather than stipulated. It was permanent and not subject to deliberate change. Its development required something like unanimous acceptance in an assembly after consultations with leading members of the community, the wise old men. Where there were kings, they were bound by the law like everybody else. But after the conquest of Norway by King Harold Finehair, a new conception of law was introduced there. It was that it consisted in royal decrees. The king became a lawgiver, not being necessarily bound himself by the law. Even if the legal system might become more efficient by such a change, the law itself could not be regarded any more as a curb on arbitrary power. Instead, it became an instrument in the hands of the king.7 Snorri vividly describes in Heimskringla how King Harold Finehair in the 870s took possession of all inherited property in Norway, making the farmers, rich and poor, pay him land dues and collecting fines.8 In order to gain the support of the farmers, his successors however often promised them that they would obey the good, old law. One of them was Harold’s son Haakon, the fosterson of King Athelstan of England. “Harold had enslaved and oppressed all people in the land, while Haakon wished everyone well and offered to return the farmers their patrimonies,” as Snorri reports.9 Again, in the 990s when the farmers learned that King Olaf Tryggvason was travelling around with a large force “and breaking the people’s ancient laws, while all those who objected had to face punishments and harsh terms”, they flocked to their assemblies to meet the king and tell him that they would “not subject themselves to wrongful laws even if they are introduced by the king”.10 Snorri also approvingly comments on two earls who ruled Norway for a while that “they kept well to the ancient law and all the customs of the land and were popular and good rulers.”11 Yet again, when King Olaf the Fat asked the landowners to accept him as king, he promised them “in return ancient laws and to defend the land from foreign armies and rulers.”12

More telling examples of a conflict between the ancient law and royal decrees are found in Snorri’s Heimskringla.13 The author must have seen the problem more clearly than other legal scholars because he could observe it from the vantage point of a country where the old conception of law had been maintained: the Icelandic Commonwealth. Moreover, according to the ancient tradition, the king was not only regarded as being under the law: he also had to rule by general consent rather than by the grace of God. Normally, he could only expect such consent by promising to follow the good, old law and to keep taxation within limits. Thus, a social contract between the king and his subjects was in force, even if implicit, and when the king abused his power, he risked being deposed and even killed. This is a recurrent theme in Heimskringla, but nowhere expressed as strongly as in a famous speech given by Snorri’s Swedish colleague, Lawspeaker Torgny, to his king in 1018. Snorri may have heard the story in his trip to Sweden in 1219. Torgny complains that “this king that we have now lets no one dare to say anything to him except just what he wants to have done, and devotes all his enthusiasm to that, but lets his tributary lands slip from his grasp through lack of energy and lack of determination.” He argues against a war with Norway and bluntly warns the king: “Should you be unwilling to accept what we demand, then we shall mount an attack against you and kill you and not put up with hostility and lawlessness from you. This is what our forefathers before us have done.”14 The assemblymen expressed their approval by clashing their weapons and making a great din. Torgny’s message to the king was later reinforced by Lawspeaker Emund and a wise old man, Arnvid the Blind.15 The king had to relent and accept the farmers’ terms.16 Snorri makes the Swedish king quite unsympathetic and ineffectual, probably because it gives him a freer hand in criticising him than if he had been a Norwegian king, let alone a canonised king such as Olaf the Fat.

Nevertheless, Snorri has so much to say about the avarice, callousness and cruelty of many Norwegian kings that it is tempting to read Heimskringla as a warning against kings in general.17 King Erling Ericson, the grandson of Harold Finehair, “made great demands on the farmers and made life hard for them” with the result that they killed him.18 Almost routinely, the Norwegian kings had their own brothers killed, not to mention others. King Olaf Tryggvason had one of his opponents killed by placing red-hot bits of coal on his stomach and another one by forcing a snake down his throat.19 Some he had maimed or thrown over high cliffs.20 Taking Icelandic hostages in Norway, he bullied the Icelanders into adopting Christianity. As King Olaf the Fat was a saint of the Church, Snorri was more circumspect in describing him, putting criticisms into the mouths of his opponents, one of those exclaiming: “But when Olaf felt that he was secured in his power, then no one was independent of him. He went at it with us petty kings to claim in a domineering way all the dues for himself that Harold Finehair had received here, and some things even more despotically.”21 The king had this speaker blinded in both eyes and the tongue cut out of another petty king who had refused to accept his rule.22 A later pretender to the Norwegian throne, Sigurd Slembe, was tortured to death in an unspeakable manner.23 The reason some commentators have overlooked or downplayed Snorri’s anti-royalist message in Heimskringla probably is that he rarely reveals his own personal views: he prefers to let the events speak for themselves. The style of the chronicles and sagas written in Iceland in the thirteenth century, including Snorri’s works, is relentlessly objective. What people think and feel is shown by their remarks and actions.

Best to Do Without Kings

Indeed, a distinction between good and bad kings runs through Snorri’s Heimskringla. The good kings are peaceful, keep the tax burden light and uphold the good, old law. The bad kings are warriors, raising taxes and conscripting farmers for their adventures home and abroad. One comparison already mentioned is between Harold Finehair and his son, Haakon Athelstan’s Fosterson. Under Haakon the country prospered. Another comparison is between two brothers who were jointly earls of Orkney: “Bruce was gentle and a very compliant person, wise and eloquent and popular. Einar was obstinate, reserved and unfriendly, impetuous and avaricious and a great warrior.”24 Snorri has this to say about Einar’s rule: “Now there came to be famine in his realm as a result of the labour and expense imposed on the farmers. But in the part of the country that Bruce had, there was much prosperity and an easy life for farmers. He was popular.”25 A third example was that of Magnus, son of Olaf the Fat. In the beginning of his reign, he was quite harsh, and the farmers started grumbling. “Does he not remember that we have never put up with loss of our rights? He will go the same way as his father or some of the other rulers that we have deprived of life when we got tired of their tyranny and lawlessness.” An Icelandic poet at his court took it upon himself to admonish him in a poem, politely, but firmly. After this warning the king changed for the better. “King Magnus became popular and beloved of all the people in the country.”26 Incidentally, this last story also illustrates another recurrent topic in Snorri’s works: the power of words, especially words of poets. Of course, Snorri saw himself as such a poet, gently guiding dignitaries such as King Haakon or Earl Skuli into behaving well.
Snorri uses the distinction between good and bad kings to great effect in a famous speech given in 1024 at the Althing by Einar of Thvera. King Olaf the Fat had sent an Icelandic courtier of his to the Althing, asking the Icelanders to give him Grim’s Isle off the Northern coast of Iceland and promising them his friendship in return. Einar the Farmer responded:

The reason I have had little to say about this business is that no one has called upon me to speak about it. But if I am to give my opinion, then I think that the course for us dwellers in this land is not to submit here to the taxes paid to King Óláfr and all the burdens such as he has imposed on people in Norway. And we shall be causing this deprivation of freedom not only to ourselves, rather both to ourselves and our sons and all our families that inhabit this land, and this bondage will never go away or disappear from this land. So though this king may be a good man, as I firmly trust that he is, yet it will happen from now on as it has before now, when there is a change of ruler, that they turn out differently, some well, some badly. But if the people of this country wish to keep their freedom, which they have had since this land was settled, then it will be best to grant the king no foothold on it, either in possession of land here or by payment from here of specific taxes which may be interpreted as acknowledgement of allegiance. But this I declare to be quite proper, that people should send the king friendly gifts, those who wish to, hawks or horses, hangings or sails or other such things that are suitable to send. It is making good use of these things, if they are rewarded by friendship. But as for Grímsey, there is this to say, if nothing is transported from there that can be used as food, then a host of men could be maintained there. And if a foreign army is there and they come from there with longships, then I think many a cottager would feel that oppression was at hand.27

Clearly Snorri is here putting into the mouth of Einar from Thvera his own recommendation about Iceland’s foreign policy: The Icelanders should be friends with the Norwegian king, not his subjects.

The Icelandic Althing met at Thingvellir every year to interpret the law and to adjudicate cases. Snorri was Lawspeaker 1215–1218 and again 1222–1231.

The whole of Snorri’s Heimskringla can be regarded as a reaffirmation of Einar’s argument, that kings turn out differently, some well, some badly, so it is best to have no king. It is an early version of Karl Popper’s argument that we have to design our institutions in such a way that bad rulers do the least harm.28 In his efforts to annex Iceland, King Olaf the Fat did not give up, however. In 1028, as Snorri describes, the king took four Icelandic hostages in Norway and sent one of them to Iceland with the message that he wanted the Icelanders to accept the laws that he had laid down in Norway and to pay to him weregilds (compensation for property damage, including lives and injuries) and a poll-tax, a penny for every nose. In return he promised his friendship, but otherwise he threatened “harsh treatment, as much as he was able to inflict.” The Icelanders sat a long time discussing this ‘offer’—or threat—but finally agreed unanimously to refuse it.29 As King Olaf was shortly thereafter driven into exile, nothing came out of this. But the Icelanders were less fortunate in Snorri’s own time. King Haakon IV was as determined as Olaf the Fat before him to annex Iceland. In 1247, six years after he had had Snorri killed, he was crowned in Bergen by Cardinal William of Sabina who observed that it was improper that Iceland did not serve under a king “like all others in the world”.30 While this may have lent papal authority to King Haakon’s designs on Iceland, it was somewhat odd coming from a Cardinal who some twenty years earlier had served as the Pope’s emissary to the Baltic countries, ruled by the Teutonic Order of Knights, and not by a king. Again, the Cardinal came from Italy where many city-states such as Venice and Florence had long been established, not serving under any king. Snorri’s killer, Gissur Thorvaldsson, was appointed Earl by King Haakon, and in 1262 he managed by a combination of promises and threats to cajole the reluctant and suspicious Icelanders into becoming subjects of the Norwegian king. Although Iceland at the time seems to fit the definition of a nation,31 it was probably fear of excessive taxation rather than a national sentiment which motivated the opposition to the Norwegian demands. In the so-called ‘Old Covenant’, the Icelanders agreed to pay an annual tribute to the Norwegian king, but insisted on maintaining their own law and on their right to renounce the agreement if its stipulations were not fulfilled.

It is an intriguing question whether in the thirteenth century the Icelanders could have kept their independence. Was Snorri’s political programme not feasible? Was the Old Covenant really inevitable? In fact, King Haakon died a year later on an expedition to Scotland. Thus, if the Icelanders had held out one or two more years, then some of the pressure from Norway might have eased off. The Icelanders might however also have had to reduce their total dependence on Norway in matters of foreign trade: the Norwegian king could, and sometimes did, force the Icelanders into obedience by forbidding trade with them. This would by no means have been impossible, as a market for Icelandic stockfish was opening up in Europe. A military expedition to Iceland would also have been problematic: While the island might have been relatively easy to conquer, it would have been difficult to retain. The example of another European country without a king, Switzerland, may be relevant. In 1291, three poor and sparsely populated mountain cantons established the Swiss Commonwealth, Eidgenossenschaft, which in the next few centuries was able to withstand several attempts by royal neighbours to subdue it, slowly expanding and turning into one of the freest, stablest and most prosperous countries in the world. Iceland, alas, followed a different path. Trying to maintain control of the remote island at any cost, the Norwegian, and later Danish, king allied himself with the small and powerful Icelandic landowning class, impeding the development of the potentially profitable fisheries, hindering free trade with other countries and the formation of urban areas. Surrounded by some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the world, for centuries the Icelanders were doomed to poverty and starvation.32

Egil’s Saga: An Assertive Individual Against a King

Snorri Sturluson was an accomplished writer, as Egil’s Saga, his biography of—or perhaps historical novel about—his forefather, Egil Skallagrimsson, also shows. The saga has two main themes. One of them is the feud between Egil’s family and the Norwegian royal family after the conquest of Norway by Harold Finehair. The canny old Norwegian landowner Kveldulf refuses both to support and to oppose the new king, but advises his two sons, Thorolf and Grim, against serving him. Thorolf nevertheless decides to join the king’s force. While Thorolf proves a valient fighter, his enemies spread slander about him. King Harold Finehair believes them and dismisses him. Two of the king’s men seize a ship belonging to Thorolf, and he reciprocates by pillaging their farm and killing their brothers. The king subsequently has Thorolf killed. Kveldulf and Grim ask the king for compensation, but when Grim refuses to join him at the court, the king angrily rejects their request. In 891, father and son decide to emigrate to Iceland, but on the way they take revenge for Thorolf by killing some of the king’s men. Kveldulf dies at sea, but Grim establishes a big farm at Borg. He is totally bald and is therefore called Skallagrim in Icelandic (skalli means bald head). He has two sons, Thorold and Egil. As a young man, Thorolf Skallagrimsson decides to visit old friends of the family in Norway and then to become a viking. He fights under King Harold’s son, Eric Blood-Axe, and briefly returns to Iceland in 926. When Thorolf returns to Norway in 927, Egil who is now 17 years old accompanies him. He is big, strong and assertive and has already started to compose poems. He runs into King Eric in a place called Atli’s Isle, and manages in a drunken browl to kill the king’s steward, and during his subsequent flight from the place he kills or maims three more of the king’s men. While the king eventually accepts compensation for his men, he orders Egil to leave Norway. After participating in some viking raids, Thorolf and Egil go to England and join the force of King Athelstan. At a battle between English and Scottish forces in 937, Thorolf is killed.

A year later, in 938, Egil leaves the service of King Athelstan and heads to Norway where Asgerd Bjornsdaughter, the widow of his brother, lives. He marries her and they go to Iceland and live at Borg. A few years later Asgerd’s father, who had been a wealthy landowner, dies. Egil and Asgerd go to Norway to claim their inheritance. But Asgerd’s half-brother, a good friend of King Eric, refuses to hand over her share, with the support of the king. The king’s men seize a ship belonging to Egil and kill some of his men, while Egil manages to kill the king’s helmsman. He goes to the farm of Asgerd’s half-brother and kills him and some of his men, and on his way from it he runs into one of King Eric’s sons, Rognvald, and kills him and his men. Before leaving Norway, he sets up a scorn-pole against King Eric, calling on the nature spirits of the land to drive him out. He returns to Iceland in 946, but spends only two years there before going to England to meet King Athelstan. His ship runs aground in the mouth of the Humber, in a territory ruled by King Eric who has by now been driven out of Norway. Egil has to pay a visit to his old adversary who wants to have him killed. But an old friend of both Egil and the king, Knight Arinbjorn, suggests that Egil should compose a poem in praise of King Eric. After Egil has delivered the poem, the king tells him that he can keep his head, but that he must never cross his path again. Appropriately, the poem is called ‘Head’s Ransom’. After some further adventures, Egil settles down at Borg in Iceland. When two of his sons died, he composes a long poem in their memory, ‘Lament for My Sons’. He also composes a poem to honour a Norwegian friend of his, Knight Arinbjorn, who had stayed loyal to him through his various romps. Egil passes away in 990.

If the feud between the families of Egil and the Norwegian kings is one of the main themes in Egil’s Saga, then the other one is individuality, exemplified by its larger-than-life chief protagonist, Egil Skallagrimsson. In the Middle Ages, Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt famously wrote that “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation — only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spirited individual, and recognized himself as such.” Burckhardt added that “at the close of the 13th century, Italy began to swarm with individuality; the ban laid upon human personality was dissolved; and a thousand figures meet us each in its own special shape and dress.” Snorri’s Egil certainly steps out of any general category and meets us in his own special shape and dress. Avaricious and violent, sometimes grotesque, he is also capable of composing fine and sensitive poems about his secret love of his brother’s widow, the loss of his sons, his appreciation of a loyal friend and the ravages of old age. Not content with staying at home, he travels to Norway and England and participates in Vikings raids in the Baltic countries and elsewhere. He is a 10th century cosmopolitan. Therefore, perhaps it was in Iceland rather than in Italy that the ‘veil of collective consciousness’ first melted into air.

Snorri wrote Egil’s Saga after he had returned in 1239 from his second trip to Norway which explains why this saga is overtly somewhat more hostile to the Norwegian kings than Heimskringla. By now, King Haakon regarded Snorri as an enemy, and Snorri may have given up the hope of remaining the king’s friend without becoming his subject. Egil’s Saga is the first of the great ‘Sagas of the Icelanders’ so it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Snorri laid the foundations of a remarkable literary tradition shortly before his own untimely and tragic death.34 Indeed, in many other Icelandic sagas, kings are viewed with the same scepticism and even hostility as in Egil’s Saga. In the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal (Water Valley), for example, one of the protagonists expresses his intention of moving to Iceland where “men are free from the assaults of kings and criminals”35 The Saga of Hord and the People of Holm also begins in no uncertain terms:

Most of Iceland was settled in the days of Harold Finehair. People would not endure his oppression and tyranny, especially those who belonged to aristocratic families and who had ambition and good prospects. They would rather leave their property in Norway than suffer aggression and injustive—whether from a king or from anyone else.36

While the Icelandic sagas are not as well known as, say, Homer’s epics, few would deny that they are an important contribution to Western civilisation, having inspired eminent writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Jorge Luis Borges, not to mention Nordic authors such as Esaias Tegnér, N. F. S. Grundtvig and Henrik Ibsen. Tolkien, a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, told his colleagues that their students should read less of Shakespeare and more of Snorri Sturluson, 37 and Borges wrote an elegy in Spanish about Snorri and his death. 38 The so-called ‘Tales of the Icelanders’ which are much shorter than the sagas also display a wariness of kings. Many of them are about clever Icelanders who have confrontations with Norwegian or Danish kings and usually outwit them or offer pithy and unfavourable comments about them.39

Why were the Icelanders, a tiny nation on a windswept island far away from the European mainland, able to create such exceptional literature? The life of Snorri Sturluson certainly provides one mundane answer. He was a rich man, and his wealth enabled him not only to write, but also to produce books. This was no easy task in his time: the production of just a copy of an Icelandic saga would have cost the equivalent of at least $10,000 in modern money. Calves had to be reared and slaughtered to provide the parchment on which it would be written; berries had to be collected out of which to make the ink; a scribe had to be employed, or at least fed, clothed and lodged, for some months to make the copy.40 Thus, Snorri’s example may strengthen one argument for a leisure class: that it makes possible cultural achievements that otherwise would not exist. But another possible answer may be weightier. Many of the Icelandic sagas were written in a period when the Icelanders were becoming aware of Norwegian expansionism, in mid-thirteenth century. They felt the need to express their own identity, tell the story of how and why they separated from Norway, and grew into a nation.41 Thus, the sagas may have been a political response to Norwegian aggression, an assertion both of nationality and individuality. This may also partly explain how and why Snorri Sturluson in Heimskringla and Egil’s Saga provided many of the ideas later associated with the Whig tradition in British politics: that law should be formed by consultation rather than stipulation; that government should be by consent, not by the grace of God; that there was in place an implicit social contract between the sovereign and the people and that the people could dismiss the sovereign if he or she violated that contract; and that man could be defined not only by some general category, but had to be conceived of also as an individual who had acquired the ability and will to make his or her own choices.

Hannes H. Gissurarson is Professor of Politics at the University of Iceland. The author of more than 15 books in Icelandic and English, he has served on the boards of the Mont Pelerin Society and the Central Bank of Iceland and been a Visiting Scholar at several universities, including Stanford and UCLA. He is also Research Director at RNH, the Icelandic Research Centre for Innovation and Economic Growth.

1 Adam von Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (ca. 1075), Book IV, §244. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, tr. Francis J. Tschan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), p. 217.
2 Thrainn Eggertsson, Analyzing Institutional Successes and Failures: A Millennium of Common Mountain Pastures in Iceland, International Review of Law and Economics, Vol. 12 (1992), pp. 423–437.
3 David Friedman, Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case, Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 8, No. 2 (1979), pp. 399–415.
4 Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla (ca. 1220–30), Vol. I–III, tr. A. Finley and A. Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2014–2016). Vol. I. The Saga of the Ynglings, Ch. 1, p. 6.
5 Sturlunga Saga, Vol. I, tr. Julia H. McGrew (New York: Twayne, 1970). Sturla Thordson, The Saga of the Icelanders, Ch. 143, p. 349. Sturla Thordson was Snorri’s cousin, but as the king’s man quite ambivalent about him and probably not always fair to him.
6 Ibid. Ch. 151, p. 360.
7 Sigurdur Lindal, Law and Legislation in the Icelandic Commonwealth, Scandinavian Studies in Law, Vol. 37 (1993), pp. 53–92. Cf. Sigurdur Lindal, Stjornspeki Snorra Sturlusonar eins og hun birtist i Heimskringu [Snorri Sturluson’s Political Thought, as Expressed in Heimskringla], Ulfljotur, Vol. 60, No. 3 (2007), pp. 651–732.
8 Heimskringla, Vol. I, The Saga of Harold Finehair, Ch. 6, p. 56.
9 Ibid. Vol. I, The Saga of Hakon, Athelstan’s Fosterson, Ch. 1, p. 88. Here, unlike Snorri’s translators, I anglicise Norse names, e.g. Harold for Haraldr.
10 Ibid. Vol. I. The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, Ch. 54 and 55, p. 189.
11 Ibid. Vol. I. The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Ch. 113, p. 233.
12 Ibid. Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 37, p. 30. Often his surname is given as Olaf the Stout, but the Icelandic word ‘digur’ has a more derogatory meaning and should be translated as ‘fat’.
13 Cf. Lawman Emund’s comment, Heimskringla, Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 94, p. 99; a comment on King Canute, Ibid. Ch. 130, p. 148; and the critique of King Sven, Ibid. Ch. 239, pp. 267–8.
14 Heimskringla, Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 80, p. 74–75.
15 Ibid. Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 94, pp. 95–102.
16 It is interesting that the leader of the Swedish conservative-liberal party Carl Bildt in a speech on 23 August 1986, Frihetens parti (The Party of Freedom), invoked the example of Lawspeaker Torgny. “A strong sense of justice is not unique to our country. But its role has been important in a country which has never seen slavery or serfdom and where every young student has read the words of Lawspeaker Torgny.”
17 Magnus Fjalldal, Beware of Kings: Heimskringla as Propaganda, Scandinavian Studies, Vol. 85, No. 4 (2013), pp. 455–68; Birgit Sawyer, Heimskringla: An Interpretation (Tempe AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015). Norwegian historian Sverre Bagge who rejects such a reading of Snorri’s Heimskringla admits nevertheless that “Snorri evidently regards it as very important for a king to treat the people in the right way and finds it natural that they react against hard exactions”, Society and Politics in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 140.
18 Heimskringla, Vol. I, The Saga of Harold Greycloak, Ch. 16, p. 135.
19 Ibid. Vol. I. The Saga of Olav Trygvason. Ch. 76, pp. 201–2. Heimskringla, Vol. I. The Saga of Olav Trygvason. Ch. 80, p. 204.
20 Ibid. Vol. I. The Saga of Olav Trygvason. Ch. 85, p. 208.
21 Ibid. Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 36, p. 29.
22 Ibid. Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 75, p. 67.
23 Ibid. Vol. III. The Saga of the Sons of Harold. Ch. 12, p. 196.
24 Ibid. Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 97, p. 104.
25 Ibid. Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 97, pp. 104–105.
26 Ibid. Vol. III, The Saga of Magnus the Good, Ch. 16, p. 19.
27 Ibid. Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 125, pp. 143–144.
28 Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (London: Routledge, 1945), Vol. I, Ch. 7.
29 Heimskringla, Vol. II. The Saga of Saint Olav. Ch. 136, p. 160.
30 Icelandic Sagas and Other Historical Documents Relating to the Settlements and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles, Vol. II, ed. Gudbrand Vigfusson (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1887). Sturla Thordson, Hakonar Saga, p. 252.
31 As Theodore M. Andersson points out, The Sagas of Norwegian Kings (1130–1265): An Introduction (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), p. 161.
32 Thrainn Eggertsson, No Experiments, Monumental Disasters. Why it Took a Thousand Years to Develop A Specialized Fishing Industry in Iceland. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1996), pp. 1–24.
33 Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, tr. S. G. C. Middlemore, Part 2, Ch. 1 (London: Penguin, 1990), p. 98.
34 Jonas Kristjansson, Var Snorri Sturluson upphafsmadur Islendingasagna? [Was Snorri Sturluson the Pioneer in Writing Sagas of Icelanders?], Andvari, Vol. 32 (1990), pp. 85–105.
35 The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, Vol. IV (Reykjavik: Leifur Eiriksson, 1997). The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal, Ch. 10, p. 15.
36 Ibid. Vol. II (Reykjavik: Leifur Eiriksson, 1997). The Saga of Hord and the People of Holm, Ch. 1, p. 193.
37 Nancy Marie Brown, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (New York: Palgrave, 2012), p. ix.
38 Jorge Luis Borges, Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), El otro, el mismo (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1969), p. 149.
39 Examples might be The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords and The Tale of Thorvard Crow’s-Beak, The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, Vol. I, pp. 369–373 and 397–400, respectively; and the Tale of Halldor Snorrason, Vol. V, pp. 219–222.
40 Apparently, a famous Icelandic manuscript, Flateyjarbok, cost 113 calves. Sigurdur Nordal, Time and Vellum, Annual Bulletin of the Modern Humanities Research Association, Vol. 24 (1952), pp. 15–26.
41 Theodore M. Andersson, The King of Iceland, Speculum, Vol. 74, No. 4 (1999), pp. 923-934.