Medieval Studies Kings’ Sagas
by
Ármann Jakobsson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0318

Introduction

The Norse-Icelandic kings’ sagas originated in the 12th century, reached their zenith in the 13th century, and then kept being amplified and rewritten into new compilations throughout the Middle Ages. They have been defined by their subject matter, the kings of Norway and Denmark from the 9th century until the 13th century, since it is hard to refer to them as a literary genre as these are works of disparate length and are composed in different languages (Icelandic or Latin) with few shared common features apart from the subject matter. The kings’ sagas are believed to have originated in the early 12th century although there are no extant texts from that period. It has been postulated that Icelandic historians Sæmundr Sigfússon (b. 1056–d. 1133) and Ari Þorgilsson (b. c. 1067–d. 1148) each wrote a kings’ saga even though the outlines of those are not known. Shortly after the mid-12th century the otherwise unknown Icelander Eiríkur Oddsson wrote a saga about the royal pretender Sigurðr Slembir and his short reign in Norway (1136–1139), a text that was possibly influenced by Danish interests. The late 12th century saw the emergence of short synoptical histories of Norway and biographies of the royal saints St Óláfr and Óláfr Tryggvason influenced by hagiography, whereas the first saga of a secular king was Sverris saga, authored by Karl Jónsson (d. 1213), possibly co-authored by King Sverrir himself, and first drafted in the 1180s. The 13th century witnessed ever expanding royal biographies, culminating in the three large compendia Morkinskinna (c 1220), Fagrskinna ( c. 1225) and Heimskringla (c. 1230), each of which collects several royal biographies in a period from 150–300 years. In Morkinskinna and Heimskringla in particular, the biography of the king is augmented by skaldic verse and narratives about various other people, thus expanding royal biographies into a history of the kingdom of Norway in the medieval fashion. Kings’ sagas continued to be written throughout the 13th century, with Hákonar saga and Knýtlinga saga by brothers Ólafur Þórðarson (b. 1212–d. 1259) and Sturla Þórðarson (b. 1214–d. 1284), lawspeakers, scholars, and skaldic poets of particular interest. However, after Iceland became a dependency of the kings of Norway in 1262–1264, interest in kingship as an institution seems to gradually wane. Most of the 14th-century kings’ sagas are large compendia that join together various 13th-century texts. Thus, the kings’ sagas are the oldest category of secular sagas but also declined first whereas other saga writing in general thrived in the 14th century.

The Kings’ Sagas

Definitions of saga categories mostly stem from the early 19th century and are almost solely based on their source value. Thus the kings’ sagas are distinguished from the sagas of Icelanders for taking place mostly outside Iceland but mostly in the same period. The legendary sagas on the other hand take place in Scandinavia in an earlier period, before the settlement of Iceland in the late 9th century but are also concerned with Northern kings and their exploits. The romances take place outside Scandinavia but also concern kings and courtiers. While even in the 19th century scholars had doubts about the source value of the legendary sagas, it was only in the early 20th century that scholarly works such as Weibull 1911 cast doubt on the historical value of the kings’ sagas as well, especially concerning 9th-, 10th- and early-11th-century events. This and possibly the convoluted textual relationship between individual sagas led to a decline in interest in the kings’ sagas, and well into the 1990s, scholarly debate about this category was focused on the origins of the kings’ sagas (see, e.g., Ellehøj 1965, Andersson 1985) rather than their aesthetic value or ideology, which entered the scholarly debate later (see Jakobsson 2005). Only Heimskringla, believed to be authored by Snorri Sturluson (b. 1179– d. 1241) received attention as a text in its own right (see, e.g., Whaley 1991). While the kings’ sagas may not actually constitute a medieval genre, Jakobsson 1997 demonstrated their value as a category by a focus on the shared royal ideology of the sagas, whereas earlier scholars such as Koht 1914 had focused on their ideological differences. The development of the genre alongside the sagas of Icelanders has recently been explored in Andersson 2016, while Ghosh 2011 has examined the source value of verse and prose in the kings’ sagas.

  • Andersson, Theodore M. “Kings’ Sagas (Konungasögur).” In Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide. Islandica 45. Edited by Carol J. Clover and John Lindow, 197–238. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.

    A review article outlining the status of kings’ saga research before 1985, with the focus on theories about the origins of the genre, the opaque works of Ari and Sæmundr, and the relationship between various kings’ sagas, illustrated in complex diagrams.

  • Andersson, Theodore M. The Sagas of Norwegian Kings (1130–1265). Islandica 59. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.

    A monograph focusing on the evolution of the kings’ sagas from the earliest written sagas to the culmination of royal biography in the great compendia of the 1220s, and the impact of the kings’ sagas on and relationship with the sagas of Icelanders.

  • Ellehøj, Svend. Studier over den ældste norrøne historieskrivning. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1965.

    From a previous doctoral thesis concerning the earliest historical writings on Norwegian kings and Icelandic history, with particular emphasis on the works of Ari Þorgilsson, including the lost account of Norwegian kings that may have been composed by Ari and its possible contents.

  • Ghosh, Shami. Kings’ Sagas and Norwegian History: Problems and Perspectives. The Northern World 54. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004209893.i-253

    A monograph examining critically the principal issues of kings’ saga studies, in particular the relationship between the prose and the skaldic verse of the sagas, and the source value of the allegedly earlier skaldic verse within the saga prose.

  • Jakobsson, Ármann. Í leit að konungi: Konungsmynd íslenskra konungasagna. Reykjavík, Iceland: Háskólaútgáfan, 1997.

    A monograph concerned with the kingship ideology of Icelandic kings’ sagas composed before the fall of the commonwealth in 1262. The author argues that the royal ideology is mostly shared and there was a huge interest in the institution of kingship in the last decades before Iceland had a king.

  • Jakobsson, Ármann. “Royal Biography.” In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 31. Edited by Rory McTurk, 388–402. Chichester, UK: Blackwell, 2005.

    A review article surveying the major issue of kings’ saga research before 2005, with more attention paid to formal characteristics of the texts and the role of royal ideology in providing the unity of the category, thus demonstrating the decreasing significance of the quest for the origins of each text.

  • Koht, Halvdan. “Sagaenes opfatning af vor gamle historie.” Historisk tidsskrift 5 (1914): 379–396.

    An article emphasizing that the sagas are all governed by their own agenda wherein the author hastily diagnoses Morkinskinna, Fagrskinna, and Heimskringla as reflecting, respectively, the clerical, royal, and aristocratic points of view.

  • Weibull, Lauritz. Kritiska undersökningar i Nordens historia omkring år 1000. Lund, Sweden: Gleerup, 1911.

    This monograph broke new ground and became very controversial by being critical of the source value of the kings’ sagas for the history of the North in the 10th and early 11th century (e.g., King Óláfr Tryggvason and his adventurous career).

  • Whaley, Diana. Heimskringla: An Introduction. VSNR Text Series 8. London: The Viking Society, 1991.

    A monograph introducing Heimskringla, the most famous of kings’ sagas, and its author Snorri Sturluson to international readers, this is the first introduction focusing on the text of the work rather than only its origins and authorship.

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