Medieval Studies Contemporary Sagas (Bishops’ sagas and Sturlunga saga)
Ásdís Egilsdóttir
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0303


Contemporary sagas tell of people and events in Iceland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They were written soon after the events they describe. The secular contemporary sagas are preserved in the compilation Sturlunga saga, from around 1270–1280, but covering the period 1117–1264. The designation Sturlunga saga first appears in the seventeenth century. Sturlunga saga is a compilation of several sagas. The original sagas were written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The compilation begins with Geirmundar þáttr heljarskinns, telling of a settler from Norway who fled to Iceland to escape the growing power of King Harald Fairhair. The other texts included are Þorgils saga ok Hafliða, Sturlu saga, Prestssaga Guðmundar Arasonar, Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar, Íslendinga saga by Sturla Þórðarson, Þórðar saga kakala, and Svínfellinga saga. Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar is preserved both as a separate saga and as a version included in the Sturlunga saga compilation. Arons saga Hjörleifssonar should also be mentioned in this context, although it was not included in the compilation. Aron was a contemporary of Sturla Sighvatsson and Bishop Guðmundr Arason. The saga has been dated to around 1340. Biskupa sögur (Bishops’ sagas) are biographies of medieval Icelandic bishops. They cover the period from 1056 until 1331, and they were written from the early twelfth century until the mid-fourteenth century. The first Icelandic bishopric was established in Skálholt (South Iceland) in 1056, followed by the establishment of a second bishopric in Hólar (North Iceland) in 1106. The sagas of the bishops of Skálholt cover the period 1056–1206 (Hungrvaka, Þorláks saga Helga, and Páls saga) and 1269–1298 (Árna saga Þorlákssonar). The Biskupa sögur from Hólar cover the periods 1106–1121 (Jóns saga helga), 1203–1237 (the sagas of Guðmundr Arason), and 1324–1331 (Lárentíus saga Kálfssonar). In addition, there are two þættir, or short stories. Ísleifs þáttr tells a story of Ísleifr Gizurarson as a young priest. He became the first bishop of Skálholt (1056–1080). Jóns þáttr Halldórssonar is a short, anecdotal narrative of the life of Jón Halldórsson, bishop of Skálholt (r. 1322–1339). The sagas are all in the vernacular, but remnants of a Latin Þorláks saga and liturgical readings have been preserved. There is evidence for a Latin Jóns saga and Guðmundar saga. The Biskupa sögur are written by contemporary or almost contemporary authors, some of them known by name.

Sturlunga saga

After the middle of the twelfth century, the structure of the old society was gradually disrupted. A few powerful families gained control over large parts of the country. Their continuous disputes eventually led to the submission of Iceland to the Norwegian king. Íslendinga saga by Sturla Þórðarson is the largest contribution to Sturlunga saga. It tells the story of the Sturlungar (the Sturlungs), an ambitious family toward the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth and their struggle with other families (Callow 2020). The best known persons from the Sturlungar family are writers and poets Snorri Sturluson and his nephews Sturla Þórðarson and Óláfr Þórðarson. Sturla Þórðarson is discussed in Glendinning 1974 and Sigurðsson and Jakobsson 2017. The period when they dominated Iceland has been named after them and referred to as the Sturlung age. The Family Sagas (Íslendinga sögur) have been read as literature but Sturlunga saga mainly as history. Modern scholars, especially in works such as Bragason 2010, Bragason 2021, have emphasized that Sturlunga saga is valuable in its own right as a narrative. The individual sagas and the compilation as such reflect the debate on political issues in Iceland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Scholars have discussed the partiality for Icelandic chieftainschip over kingship. In previous scholarship, Sturlunga saga was read and interpreted with a nationalistic point of view. Modern scholars are of the opinion that it expresses the wish for peace in the country and that submitting to Norwegian rule would be a solution, as pointed our in Nordal 1998 and Bragason 2010. The Sturlunga saga compilation is believed to be the work of Þórðr Narfason (d. 1308), a descendant of the Sturlungs. He joined the sagas together to make a coherent, chronological work. By doing so, he reorganized his material, made cuts, and added new passages. His work represents his insight and interpretation of the Sturlung age conflicts (Tranter 1987, Bragason 2010). Although Sturlunga saga recounts battle and bloodshed, the compiler appears to show preference for peaceful chieftains over violent ones (Bragason 2010). The Sturlunga saga bibliography is vast. Since Sturlunga saga is considered the most important source of 13th-century events, most historical works cite it or refer to it. Students and scholars are advised to check recent monographies and use their bibliographies for guidance. Introductions to scholarly editions and translations contain fundamental information.

  • Bragason, Úlfar. Ætt og saga: Um frásagnarfræði Sturlungu eða Íslendinga sögu hinnar miklu. Reykjavík, Iceland: Háskólaútgáfan, 2010.

    A narratological analysis of Sturlunga saga, each individual saga and the compliation, discussing its literary value, structure, and ideology.

  • Bragason, Úlfar. Reykjaholt Revisited. Rrepresenting Snorri in Sturla Þórðarson´s Íslendinga saga. Translated by Andrew Wawn. Reykjavík: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar í íslenzkum fræðum, 2021.

    Rather than examining the Sturlunga saga compilation and Íslendinga saga by Sturla Þórðarson as a source for historical research, Bragason focuses on Íslendinga saga as a literary discourse, employing theories of memory and narratology. The book is a fine analysis on characters and events, as presented and shaped by Sturla Þórðarson.

  • Callow, Chris. Landscape, Tradition and Power in Medieval Iceland. The Northern World 80. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004331600

    An examination of sociopolitical developments in medieval Iceland during the Commonwealth, using Sturlunga saga as a source, among other mediecal Icelandic texts.

  • Glendinning, Robert J. Träume und Vorbedeutung in der Islendinga Saga Sturla Thordarsons. Frankfurt: Herbert Lang, 1974.

    An analysis of the artistic and moral values of Sturla Þórðarson, focusing on role of dreams in the narrative.

  • Grímsdóttir, Guðrún Ása, and Jónas Kristjánsson, eds. Sturlustefna: Ráðstefna haldin á sjö alda ártíð Sturlu Þórðarsonar. Reykjavík, Iceland: Stofnun Árna Magnússonar á Íslandi, 1988.

    A collection of articles discussing various aspects of Sturlunga saga by renowned scholars on the subject.

  • Nordal, Guðrún. Ethics and Action in Thirteenth-Century Iceland. Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1998.

    A discussion of changing ethics in 13th-century Iceland, as indicatied by comparing Sturlunga saga with Íslendingasögur.

  • Sigurðsson, Jón Viðar, and Sverrir Jakobsson, eds. Sturla Þórðarson: Skald, Chieftain and Lawman. Northern World Series 78. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017.

    The most discussed saga in the Sturlunga saga compilation is Íslendinga saga by Sturla Þórðarson. Besides being a saga writer, he was a skald and a lawman. In this volume, numerous experts discuss Sturla, his works, and his life.

  • Tranter, Stephen. Sturlunga Saga: The Role of the Creative Compiler. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1987.

    The author discusses the compilation as an exemplum, teaching the chieftains of the fourteenth century how to settle their disputes peacefully and to avoid the chaos of the previous age, the Sturlung age.

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