BECK index

Scandinavia 1250-1400

by Sanderson Beck

Denmark 1250-1400
Sweden 1250-1400
Norway 1250-1400
Iceland 1250-1400
Icelandic Sagas: Eyrbyggja and Njal

This chapter has been published in the book Medieval Europe 1250-1400.
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Denmark 1250-1400

Scandinavia 1095-1250

In the 13th and 14th centuries Scandinavia was still primarily a feudal society. After Denmark’s King Erik IV Plow-penny (r. 1241-50) was captured and beheaded by his brother Abel in 1250, Abel became king and averted war by giving Holstein to its count and Livonia to the Teutonic Knights. Abel restored annual meetings of the estates and improved the laws; but he was killed by Frisians while trying to enforce tax collection in western Schleswig after ruling only two years. Abel’s eldest son Valdemar was detained for ransom by the archbishop of Cologne while he was returning from the University of Paris; so his brother Kristofer was elected king of Denmark. Because Kristofer did not keep an agreement made by Abel, Denmark was attacked by Sweden and Norway; but in a peace treaty Kristofer’s nephews were given the duchy of Schleswig, and Valdemar was released.

The Danish bishops and prelates met at Vejle in 1256, and they passed a resolution that if a bishop was imprisoned or abused by the King, church services would stop. With only limited support from the bishops, Archbishop Jakob Erlandsen (1254-74) demanded that canon law be extended, but he was opposed by King Kristofer and the peasants. The Archbishop’s cause was taken up by South Jutland dukes, the count of Holstein, and the prince of Rügen. Norway’s King Birger Jarl sent a fleet of 300 ships that persuaded Denmark to forgive past wrongs and accept an alliance of mutual defense between the three northern countries in 1257. That year the unmarried Valdemar died, and the King claimed South Jutland according to German feudal law. However, the Queen Dowager Mechtild wanted to restore the rights of her sons Erik and Abel, and her brothers, the counts of Holstein, invaded Jutland supported by the Archbishop, while their ally, Prince Jarimar, attacked Zealand. However, Kristofer’s army won this war, and he retained both provinces.

Kristofer wanted his son Erik to be crowned the next king. When the Archbishop refused to perform the ceremony, the King had Erlandsen brutally imprisoned. Denmark was put under interdict, but the King’s order to disregard it was obeyed by most of the clergy. Prince Jarimar devastated Bornholm, and with the help of Jakob’s brother, Anders Erlandsen, he took over the royal castle. Then Jarimar and Mechtild’s son Erik landed in Zealand and occupied Copenhagen. King Kristofer died suddenly on May 29, 1259, and some suspected he was poisoned by the abbot Arnfast. His ten-year-old son was crowned Erik V at Viborg by a Jutland bishop on Christmas Day in 1259, and his mother Margaret acted as regent. Meanwhile Norway’s Haakon IV honored the defense pact and brought a large fleet that drove Jarimar out of Zealand. A peasant woman killed Jarimar with a knife. Margaret released Erlandsen into exile, and he excommunicated the bishops who had attended the coronation and made Abbot Arnfast bishop of Aarhus. Margaret also gave Abel’s son Erik the duchy of Jutland, but two years later he and the Holstein counts revolted and defeated her royal army in a battle at Lohede, killing a reported 10,000 and taking the King and Margaret prisoners. After nine months at Hamburg she bought her freedom by granting South Jutland to Erik, but the margrave of Brandenburg held Erik V until 1264.

Pope Urban IV had removed Erlandsen from his see, but in 1264 Pope Clement IV began a new investigation, which resulted in Erik and his mother Margaret both being excommunicated. That year Erik V was allowed to begin ruling himself after he agreed to marry Agnes, daughter of the Brandenburg margrave. The King wisely refused to meet with the papal legate Guido in the enemy territory of Schleswig, but Guido demanded an indemnity and then put Denmark under interdict. Margaret visited Rome but had to reinstate Erlandsen, who died on his way back to Denmark in 1274. A general council removed the interdict, but Erik had to pay the primate 15,000 marks. Duke Erik of South Jutland had died in 1272, and Erik V reclaimed the duchy. The King did not like the hof (parliament) meeting annually and would not let them meet for six years. He was an unpopular king and was called “Erik Clipping” for having debased the currency. In 1282 a hof held at Nyborg compelled Erik Clipping to accept a coronation charter, to call a hof every year, to imprison or fine no one without a legal judgment, and to follow Valdemar’s laws. The provincial things could no longer elect the king, but they retained legislative approval. The hof became the highest court in the realm. In 1283 the King was compelled to grant Duke Erik’s son Valdemar the fief of South Jutland. In 1286 a broad conspiracy that included royal retainers assassinated Erik Clipping.

The hof elected his 12-year-old son Erik VI Menved (r. 1286-1319) and investigated and expelled eight magnates connected to the King’s murder; these constitutionalists were supported by Norway’s Haakon V in their raids of Denmark territory for the rest of the century. In July 1289 a Norwegian fleet destroyed Elsinore. Duke Valdemar escaped being arrested and declared himself an enemy of the King, who used taxes on cities and church properties to furnish a fleet that defeated Valdemar at Gronsund in 1295. That year Denmark made peace with Norway, and Valdemar came to terms with Erik two years later. Valdemar’s brother Erik Longleg was recognized as duke of Langeland. Archbishop Jens Grand (1289-1302) tried to revive Erlandsen’s policies, and he actively opposed the King. In 1294 he was imprisoned in wretched conditions at Søborg Castle, but he escaped two years later. The Pontifical Court in Rome condemned the King to pay an indemnity of 49,000 silver marks, and they put Denmark under interdict again. Eventually the indemnity was reduced, and Jens Grand was transferred; Erik Menved was reconciled with Pope Boniface VIII in 1303.

Erik Menved persuaded Emperor Albrecht I to renew the agreement in which Friedrich II had ceded all the lands north of the Elbe. Frustrated by the coastal raids of the regicides, he attacked and destroyed the fortress in Hjaelm. The King sent Denmark’s army into Sweden to negotiate. He made peace with Norway’s Haakon at Copenhagen, giving him North Halland as a Danish fief. The three northern kingdoms settled their differences in the Peace of Helsingborg in 1310, and the fief of North Halland was transferred to Duke Erik. The margrave of Brandenburg helped the Hanseatic League regain Stralsund, and Heinrich the Lion was enfeoffed with Rostock. Danish nobles resented the King’s close relations with German princes and knights, and revolts joined by peasants had to be suppressed in Zealand and North Jutland. The King mortgaged provinces to raise money and gave Fünen to the counts of Holstein, John the Mild, and Gerard. Erik Menved did not have money to pay a mercenary army, and he left Denmark’s finances in chaos. Queen Ingeborg gave Erik fourteen children, but they all died before she did in 1319. King Erik died three months later.

As Erik Menved had no children living, the hof forced his brother Kristofer to accept their conditions in order to become king in 1320. This gave the nobles in the hof control, and he could not make war or collect taxes without their consent. He also had to pay all the debts left by Erik Menved. A papal legate crowned Kristofer II and his son Erik joint kings in Vordingborg. Policies of the previous twenty years were reversed, and taxes from the reign of Valdemar II were restored. Outlaws had their estates returned to them. The King had no initiative, and he was reconciled with the Archbishop. The former High Constable Ludvig Albrektson broke with the King and was supported by Count Gerhard III, guardian of young Duke Valdemar of South Jutland. When King Kristofer tried to reclaim that guardianship, in 1326 Gerhard and other nobles moved through Jutland and Fünen, crossed over to Zealand, and imprisoned young King Erik in Haderslev Castle. Kristofer fled from Denmark with his sons Otto and Valdemar.

Gerhard became regent when Duke Valdemar was elected king with limited powers. No other king was to be elected in the king’s lifetime so that the election would be independent, and one man was not to control South Jutland and Denmark. The bishops and nobility approved Valdemar III giving the duchy of South Jutland to Gerhard as a hereditary fief, and his ally, John the Mild, received Lolland, Falster, and Femern. These seizures provoked the peasants to revolt at Thorslunde in 1328, and others attacked Gottorp Castle in South Jutland; but Gerhard easily suppressed these. The nobles, bishops, and even John the Mild resented the tyranny of Gerhard, and in 1329 they put Kristofer II back on his throne. John the Mild received Skane and much of Zealand; the dethroned Valdemar was given South Jutland; and Gerhard was reduced to Fünen as an inheritable fief. When the two counts of Holstein came into conflict, Kristofer entered South Jutland but had to retreat. The agreement made on January 10, 1332 dismembered Denmark. The two counts of Holstein dominated the country as Gerhard received North Jutland. Kristofer II was imprisoned and died in 1332.

When Kristofer’s son Otto returned from Germany, he invaded North Jutland but was defeated and imprisoned. While nobles and peasants seethed with resentment, Gerhard with his sons Erik and Klaus and troops from the Rhine and the Weser invaded North Jutland, destroying as they proceeded. On April 1, 1340 Nils Ebbeson and other Danes assassinated Gerhard and his chaplain in the city of Randers. His sons Erik and Klaus turned to Valdemar, and on June 21 the Viborg Assembly elected Valdemar Atterdag king without a charter. He was called “Atterdag,” which implies a “new day” because he restored the monarchy after an eight-year interregnum. His older brother Otto renounced his claim and was released, and Duke Valdemar surrendered South Jutland to the counts of Holstein. King Valdemar IV married Duke Valdemar’s sister Hedvig and used her dowry to buy back North Jutland. Zealanders paid their taxes so that the King could redeem mortgaged provinces; but the King had to cede Skane to Magnus of Sweden, and he went to Estonia and sold it to the Teutonic Order for 19,000 marks. In six years he regained important castles, and after a few more years he had all of Zealand and the islands of Lolland, Falster, and Moen.

When Emperor Karl IV threatened Valdemar’s brother-in-law, Margrave Ludwig of Brandenburg in 1349, King Valdemar IV led an army into Berlin. Karl and Ludwig were reconciled, and the Emperor gave Valdemar 16,000 silver marks. Valdemar also made a treaty with Duke Albrecht of Mecklenburg, and his daughter married Albrecht’s oldest son. Denmark was devastated by the Black Death in 1349 and 1350 that killed about half the people, mostly in the cities. This also made it easier for the King to buy more land. Nobles of Jutland led a revolt in 1351, and they were not defeated until St. Martin’s Day (November 11) in 1357. The next year Nils Bugge and other leaders came to negotiate and were murdered at Middelfart. King Valdemar made peace with Holstein and Mecklenburg, and Duke Valdemar submitted.

A large assembly meeting at Kalundborg in 1360 agreed to have the Danish assembly of nobles (Danehof) meet annually on St. John’s Day (June 21). All violence was to be severely punished, and the king was given the responsibility to protect the poor, the Danehof implying they only protected the privileged. Sweden’s King Magnus came to Copenhagen and asked for help against his rebels. King Valdemar’s daughter Margrete was betrothed to Prince Haakon of Norway, and Denmark received Skane. Valdemar also used his army in 1361 to take Visby, the valuable Hanseatic port in Gotland, but this led to war with Sweden-Norway. The Hansa stopped trading with Denmark and joined Sweden, Norway, and Holstein in an attack on Skane. Lübeck’s burgomaster Johan Wittenburg led the siege of Helsingborg, but the Danish fleet captured twelve warships. Wittenburg went back to Lübeck and was executed. In 1362 Elizabeth, sister of the Holstein counts, was going to marry Prince Haakon in Sweden; but the ship was wrecked on the Danish coast, and she was taken to the archbishop of Lund. Young Haakon went to Denmark and married 11-year-old Margrete in 1363, and Elizabeth went into a convent. Valdemar’s son Kristofer invaded southern Sweden, and peace was made on September 3, 1365.

The Hanseatic cities did not like Valdemar taking Visby and Skane. The Hanseatic League held its largest assembly ever at Cologne in 1367 and formed a war coalition against Denmark and Norway. In 1368 their fleet of seventeen large warships carried 1,540 warriors and 200 horses. They sacked Copenhagen and established a German garrison in the castle. Then the Germans captured Elsinore, Aalholm, Nykoping, Malmo, Skanor, and Falsterbo. Sweden’s King Albrekt, the counts of Holstein, and nobles from Jutland led by Claus Limbek joined the Hanseatic coalition and partitioned Denmark. Valdemar accepted the humiliating treaty at Stralsund in 1370. Denmark granted 37 Hanseatic towns the right to trade anywhere in Denmark, and they were to receive two-thirds of Skane’s revenues for fifteen years; the Hansa retained jurisdiction over their subjects. Mecklenburg and Holstein surrendered their conquests to Denmark. King Valdemar Atterdag died on October 24, 1375.

Margrete told the Hanseatic League that she would confirm their privileges if they would elect king her son Olaf, the son of Norway’s King Haakon VI. Olaf was elected king of Denmark in May 1376; but as he was only five years old, Margrete acted as regent. When Haakon died in 1380, Olaf II inherited the Norwegian throne. Margrete extended her regency to Norway. She let the oldest Holstein Gerard VI have Schleswig, and he promised to provide military aid as a vassal. Olaf died on August 23, 1387. Albrekt of Sweden had just plundered Halland and Skane. Margrete sent one army to besiege Aksevalla in Gotland and another army to Halland. Albrekt’s advance was stopped, and near Falkoping on February 24, 1389 he was defeated and captured along with his son and many nobles from Holstein and Mecklenburg. Margrete wanted to take Stockholm, but in 1395 she agreed to release Albrekt for 60,000 marks to be paid within three years. Erik of Pomerania was next in succession as the son of Margrete’s niece Maria, and he was given homage in Sweden and Denmark in 1396.

In June 1397 at Kalmar the archbishops of Lund and Uppsala crowned 15-year-old Erik of Pomerania king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The written agreement of the Kalmar Union stated that each country was to be governed by its own laws but was to give assistance to the others in case any one of them was attacked. The three countries agreed to be ruled by Erik, and his successors were to be chosen from his direct descendants. If his line died out, the counselors from the three kingdoms were to elect a king acceptable to all. An outlaw banished by one kingdom was banned also from the other two. All previous feuds were to be forgotten. Yet the agreement lacked legality because of Norway’s failure to sign.

Erik’s great aunt Margrete continued to rule the three kingdoms until her death on October 28, 1412. She had most of the forts built during the war taken down. She visited Sweden and appointed many Danes to Swedish and Norwegian fiefs, but she never appointed a Swede or a Norwegian in Denmark. Taxes could not be imposed without a written order from the government. She levied the “stake tax” on each home, the “rump tax” on each head of cattle, and the most criticized “Gotland’s release.” Prussians seized Gotland illegally in 1398, but she bought it back from the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order in 1407.

Scandinavia’s Kalmar Union 1397-1450
Denmark 1450-1517

Sweden 1250-1400

Scandinavia 1095-1250

Birger Magnusson was married to King Erik’s sister, and so his son Valdemar was chosen to succeed Erik III in 1250. Birger defeated resisting magnates and helped his son govern, giving fiefs to his younger sons. Birger promoted the inheritance rights of women, and his laws protected the home, women, clergy, and the thing. Birger granted more trading privileges to Lübeck in 1251 and to Hamburg in 1261, prospering Hansa merchants and helping Stockholm and other towns to grow. In 1257 Pope Alexander IV called upon Sweden to conquer the Karelians in Finland. Swedes in 55 ships tried to take the Finn fort of Ladoga in 1264 but were defeated by the prince of Novgorod. Birger died in 1266, and Valdemar was overthrown in 1275 by his brother Magnus Ladulas and a Danish army. When Magnus did not pay the Danes, they ravaged Sweden and supported Valdemar’s cause; but Valdemar was defeated in battle, and Magnus mollified the Danes by giving them a town.

A Swedish law also established hereditary nobility in 1280 as magnates serving in the royal cavalry were exempt from taxes. Magnus was called “Barn-lock” (Ladulas) for his law prohibiting the custom of travelers taking by force food and comfort from the rural population. An assembly at Skenninge in 1285 passed a law to substitute royal law for the revenge of blood feuds between nobles. The sanctity of the king was protected by outlawing the carrying of weapons during his visits, and secret societies were banned. Magnus had married the daughter of Count Gerhard of Holstein and was disliked for supporting the immigrant Holsteiners. Conspirators threw the count into a dungeon as Queen Helwig escaped into a monastery. Using diplomatic language, King Magnus got the count of Holstein released. Then he summoned a diet, accused the Folkungs of treason, and had all but one of them beheaded.

When Magnus died in 1290, his son Birger was only ten years old. Marshal Torgils Knutsson governed as regent, and he had the sons of the late King Valdemar kept in prison; but they escaped into Denmark and then took refuge in Norway. Swedes led by Torgils launched the third Finnish crusade in 1292, and three years later King Birger could tell the Hansa merchants of Lübeck that the Karelians had been converted. The fortress of Viborg was built in Gotland on the Russian trade route. A Swedish law in 1295 banned the selling of slaves. Sweden maintained neutrality during the war between Norway and Denmark as Denmark’s King Erik Menved married Birger’s sister Ingeborg in 1296, and two years later King Birger married Erik’s sister Margareta. Swedes conquered Karelia in Finland again in 1299, and Finland’s bishopric was moved to Abo in 1300.

King Birger Magnusson began ruling himself in 1298. When he was crowned in 1302, his brothers Erik and Valdemar were named dukes of Sweden and Finland respectively. Valdemar married the daughter of Torgils but divorced her. In 1306 the three brothers had Torgils executed. Then the two dukes imprisoned King Birger at Hatuna. Denmark’s Erik Menved tried to help him, but Norway’s Haakon V and Erik Menved’s brother Kristofer sided with the dukes. When they released Birger in 1308, he began a new campaign aided by Denmark. After a truce for one year both Denmark and Norway helped Birger. Duke Erik invaded Norway and then defeated the Danes in 1309. In 1310 he promised to give North Halland and Kungahalla to Haakon, and the peace treaty made at Helsingborg divided Sweden among the three brothers. King Birger ruled the east, and the two dukes shared the western provinces. At a double wedding in 1312 Duke Erik married Haakon’s 11-year-old daughter Ingeborg, and Duke Valdemar married Ingeborg Eriksdotter. Magnus was born to Duke Erik and Ingeborg in 1316. Birger and Margareta invited his brothers Erik and Valdemar to Nykoping for a royal feast and then imprisoned them on December 11, 1317. People gathered in Skara in the summer of 1318 and chose Mats Kettilmundsson as regent. With support from King Haakon he won military victories against Birger, who threw the prison key in the lake and let his brothers die in their cells. Birger fled to Denmark, where he died in 1321. His son Magnus was executed in 1320.

When King Haakon died in 1319, three-year-old Magnus Eriksson inherited the throne of Norway. In July at Mora Meadow he was elected king of Sweden. King Kristofer of Denmark was mortgaging land, and Johan of Holstein gained the eastern provinces of Skane and Blekinge; but he was unpopular, and the nobles wanted Magnus to rule. So Johan sold them to Sweden for 34,000 marks. Magnus and his mother gained control over Copenhagen too. In 1323 the Peace of Noteborg established more peaceful trade relations and the border between Sweden and Novgorod (Russia). Sweden took over the province of Skane. In 1332 young Magnus IV began ruling, and in 1335 he made the traditional Eriksgata tour and abolished slavery and serfdom.

When Valdemar IV became king of Denmark in 1340, he recovered Copenhagen; but in the treaty of Varberg in 1343 he recognized Sweden’s possession of Skane, Halland, and Blekinge. Magnus had married Blanka of Namur in 1336, and she gave birth to Erik and Haakon. The latter was named king of Norway, and Erik would succeed his father as king of Sweden and Skane. In the 1340s Swedish merchants wanted protection in the Gulf of Finland and a crusading campaign in eastern Finland. Magnus Eriksson went to Estonia and proclaimed a blockade on trade with Novgorod. The Hanseatic League was irritated by this and Swedish control over Skane. King Magnus was mortgaging lands and had to apologize for high taxes. In 1348 he attacked Finland, but this campaign was ended by the bubonic plague. The Black Death came to Sweden in the late 1340s and killed about a third of the people. Bengt Algotsson had become duke of Finland and Halland in 1343 and then viceroy in Skane; the visionary Birgitta called him “the devil’s servant.” Codification of national land laws was completed in 1350, and it served as Sweden’s first constitution with the election of kings. In 1351 Pope Clement VI instructed the clergy in Sweden and Norway to preach a crusade against Russia. Magnus raised an army of volunteers and invaded Finland again; but this accomplished little but increasing his debt, and in 1355 Pope Innocent VI excommunicated him for not paying his debts to the city of Lübeck and others.

Haakon began ruling Norway in 1355, and the next year his brother Erik joined with Duke Bengt and rebellious magnates against his father Magnus, who formed an alliance with Denmark’s Valdemar. Erik ruled Finland and Götland. After Erik died in 1359, King Magnus was reconciled with the magnates; but they forced him to renounce his alliance with Denmark. Valdemar then invaded Skane, and in 1361 his army seized Götland, slaughtering 1,800 peasants outside the walls of Visby. Two days after the battle Valdemar promised that they would retain their ancient rights and privileges in a new charter.

The rebellious magnates supported Haakon until he married Valdemar’s 11-year-old daughter Margaret in 1363. In Norway her education was supervised by Birgitta’s daughter Martha. The rebels turned to 20-year-old Albrekt of Mecklenburg, the nephew of Magnus. He and his father, Duke Albrekt, came to Sweden with many Germans, and they fought with the Swedish nobles against Magnus and his son Haakon, conquering Stockholm in the fall of 1363. Albrekt was crowned king of Sweden on February 18, 1364. In 1366 he secretly promised to give Gotland and portions of Smaland and Vastergotland to Denmark’s Valdemar. The Hanseatic League prevented Albrekt from controlling Skane by building forts and collecting taxes for themselves. Swedish resentment against Albrekt’s rule increased, and Haakon arrived from Norway. He gained support and marched on Stockholm. In 1371 the noble Bo Jonsson Grip mediated an agreement that allowed Albrekt to continue as king but gave all his forts and districts to the Council, which was to be limited to Swedes. The King promised to accept the Council’s advice. Magnus Eriksson was released after being in prison for six years, and he was given administration of Dalsland, Varmland, and Vastergotland; he drowned in a ship-wreck in 1374.

In the late 1380s Albrekt tried to regain power by recalling royal lands he had given to nobles, but in 1388 noble Swedes appealed to Margaret, the regent of Denmark and Norway. Two castles in Vastergotland were given to her, and she pledged to defend the rights, freedom, and privileges the Swedes had before Albrekt. Her troops defeated and captured Albrekt at Asle in Vastergotland on February 24, 1389. In October a riksdag in Söderköping recognized her rule over Sweden except for Stockholm, and they granted her a one-time tax of one mark per person. Her great nephew Erik of Pomerania began governing Norway in 1389, and in 1390 he was recognized as the heir of Sweden. Councils from the three kingdoms met at Lindholm in Skane in 1395 and agreed upon a treaty with the Mecklenburgers. Albrekt was released, but he could not pay a ransom of 60,000 silver marks within three years and so had to surrender Stockholm. Margaret released Albrekt, who received some money, abdicated the throne of Sweden, and retired to Mecklenburg. Erik at age 14 became king of Denmark and Sweden in 1396, and then he was crowned king of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway to begin the Kalmar Union in 1397.

Birgitta was born in 1303. Her father was a legislator and chief judge of Upland, and her mother was from the Folkungs family. She began having spiritual visions when she was only seven. At age thirteen she was forced to marry the noble Ulf Gudmarsson, a knight who became a judge. She bore him eight children and cultivated the friendship of learned men. In 1335 Birgitta went to the Swedish court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Blanka, and she tried to curb royal excesses. After converting her husband in 1341 they went as pilgrims to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. He became ill, and they both dedicated their life to religious work. After he died in 1344 at the Cistercian monastery of Alvastra, she remained there for four years as a penitent. She had extraordinary visions and wrote them in Swedish. Then the prior Peter translated them into Latin. She learned Latin herself, and her insights were compiled in the eight volumes of Revelationes celestes. Birgitta believed in union with God without the mediation by priests or saints, and she favored knowledge of the Bible and preaching the Gospel in the vernacular language. She called the selling of indulgences a mortal sin.

In addition to her spiritual prophecies and preaching, Birgitta criticized political figures. She was guided to go back to warn King Magnus that his sins would be judged. She favored constitutional government by the virtuous and opposed Magnus strengthening the monarchy. Birgitta complained of the following five profanations: too few people attending confession and mass; too much loose living; not observing Lent; the rich forcing servants to work on the Sabbath; and Christians engaging in usury. Magnus Eriksson modified his behavior and donated a royal manor at Vadstena to be the main cloister for her Order. In this house she provided for sixty nuns, thirteen priests, four deacons, and eight choir-brothers. During the plague of 1349 she went to Rome for the 1350 jubilee, and with the exception of a visit to Palestine she remained in Italy until her death in 1373. For more than twenty years she urged the Popes at Avignon to return to Rome and to stop the Hundred Years War between France and England. When Urban V came to Rome in 1367 for three years, he approved the foundation of her Bridgittine Order within the Augustinian Order. Her Order included monks cooperating with nuns in a common church, but the abbess was the supreme authority in practical matters. Birgitta was the most famous Swede of her time, and she was canonized in 1391 and is the patron saint of Sweden. Her Order spread to Germany, Estonia, Poland, Italy, and the Netherlands with 470 convents of women and men.

Scandinavia 1400-1517

Norway 1250-1400

Scandinavia’s Kalmar Union 1397-1450
Sweden 1450-1517

Old Haakon IV (r. 1217-63) modernized the government of Norway by appointing a chancellor and royal council. Blood feuds and ordeals by fire were prohibited. Money was spent building monasteries, churches, a hospital for lepers, and a palace at Bergen with a wall around it. A peace treaty with Denmark was signed in 1257, and Haakon married Danish princess Ingebjorg in 1261. The Norwegian assembly established hereditary monarchy when they passed a law of succession in 1260 that established the right of the eldest legitimate son. Haakon made a treaty with Russia and included Greenland in the Norwegian empire in 1261 and Iceland the following year. Greenland and Iceland agreed to recognize the authority of the king and pay taxes in exchange for a guarantee of trade. The expensive government increased the burden on the poor. Haakon was fighting in the Hebrides just prior to dying of illness in 1263.

Three years later his son Magnus VI (r. 1263-80) ceded the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland in exchange for recognition of Norwegian sovereignty over the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Scotland paid 4,000 marks and an annual tribute of 100 marks, and Alexander III’s daughter Margaret was betrothed to the son of Magnus. King Magnus was called Law-mender, and national law for Norway replaced provincial statutes in 1274. This established the hereditary nobility by exempting them from taxes in exchange for military service. The king became sole legislator, but the assemblies (things) acted as courts. Nidaros (Trondheim) archbishop John the Red (1268-82) gained privileges for the Norwegian church from Magnus in 1277.

The son of Magnus, Erik II (r. 1280-99), was young and dominated by a regency of secular nobles, who repealed the Church’s economic benefits and sent the Archbishop into exile in 1282. Norwegian attempts to limit the rights of German merchants failed after the Hansa cities with a blockade forced them to agree to their demands. The Swedish king Magnus Ladulas arbitrated a peace between the Hansa towns and Norway at Kalmar in 1285. Norwegian aggression led to war against Denmark in 1289, but the banished Norwegian pirate Alv Erlingsson was captured and put to death by the Danes the next year. The war erupted again in 1293, but a truce two years later allowed merchants to trade. Costs of the war and indemnities paid to the Germans for Alv Erlingsson’s plundering depleted Norway’s treasury. Erik sent Jarl Audun to France to negotiate a loan, and he gained an annual subsidy of 30,000 pounds in exchange for Norway providing 300 ships and 50,000 warriors for France’s war against England. This treaty was ratified in 1296 by King Erik, enabling him to pay the German cities the indemnity. However, the war between France and England was stopped, and the Norwegians never had to fight. Audun was imprisoned in 1299 and was executed three years later, probably for treason. King Erik Magnusson had no sons and was succeeded by his brother Haakon.

Haakon V went to Bergen and was proclaimed king on August 10, 1299, and in the fall he and Queen Eufemia of Rügen were crowned at their residence in Oslo. Haakon was well educated and knew Latin and French. He had several fortresses built with Akershus to protect Oslo, shifting power from the west coast. The Gulathing was transferred to the growing city of Bergen in 1300. Archbishop Jørund required parish priests to preach every Sunday, teach Christian doctrine to all ages, and examine those coming to confession. During the reign of Haakon V there were 1,200 churches and more than 600 parsonages supported by their expanding land holdings. The bishop of Oslo controlled 350 farms, and the archbishop had 2,000 farms or portions of farms. The nobles had less land than the churches, but it was about one-sixth of Norway’s land. The King held about one-fifth of the farm land. Less than a quarter of the tillers owned their own land as most farmers rented from the King, the church, nobles, burghers, or other farmers. In 1308 Haakon abolished the titles jarl (earl) and lendermand (royal representative) but retained knights appointed by royal favor. Feudalism was much weaker in Norway than in Denmark and Sweden.

Haakon betrothed his only legitimate daughter Ingebjorg to Magnus Birgerson, heir of King Birger of Sweden, in 1302 when she was only one year old. Then in 1305 she was betrothed to King Birger’s brother, Duke Erik of Sweden. Haakon endowed Erik with the valuable fief of Konghelle near the Swedish border, aided him with men and money, and even went to war as his ally against Denmark. Duke Erik tried to create a party in Norway and instigated the barons against King Haakon, who felt betrayed and demanded the return of Konghelle. This was denied, and in 1308 he besieged it unsuccessfully. Haakon made peace with Denmark, forming an alliance with King Erik Menved. Ingebjorg was again promised to Magnus Birgerson. Duke Erik invaded Norway, capturing Oslo, attacking Jaemtland, and defeating part of Norway’s fleet at Kalfsund. In 1308 Erik Menved invaded southern Sweden, and Haakon took Konghelle. The Danes could not capture Nykoping and went home for the winter. Haakon withdrew from Konghelle, which Erik regained. In 1310 Duke Erik and his brother Valdemar made peace with Haakon and ceded Konghelle, Hunchals, Varberg, and Northern Halland. In 1312 Duke Erik married Haakon’s daughter Ingebjorg, and Duke Valdemar wed Erik Magnusson’s daughter Ingebjorg. Each couple had a son in 1316, and Magnus Eriksson became the heir to the throne of Norway. Both dukes were imprisoned and left to die by their brother, King Birger, in 1318.

Haakon’s policy of accepting the commercial and political domination by the Hanseatic League caused a major break with England. In 1312 he made a treaty with Robert Bruce of Scotland. That year some Englishmen killed a Norwegian sheriff and ten men in the Vik. In reprisal Norwegians confiscated English ships, arrested merchants, and appropriated their goods. The English resented not being treated as well as their German rivals. In 1315 Haakon enforced the policy that only those who imported malt, flour, and grain into Norway could export fish and butter. The next year he imposed a duty on all goods bought and shipped from Norway, and those who did not pay could have their ships and goods confiscated. The time foreign merchants were allowed to remain in Bergen, Oslo, or Tunsberg was fixed by law. As English trade decreased, the German merchants became more powerful. Haakon V died on May 8, 1319.

Haakon V’s grandson Magnus Eriksson inherited the throne of Norway, but he was only three years old in 1319. He was staying with his mother Ingebjorg in Sweden, and Swedish nobles on the Council joined with her to elect him to the throne of Sweden. At the same time he was proclaimed king of Norway at Tunsberg. This is the first time Sweden and Norway were united. Ingebjorg had possession of the royal seal, and she established her residence in Sweden. She loved pleasure and the Danish duke Knut Porse of Halland, who raised an army and instigated a war against Denmark by both Sweden and Norway. In 1322 after she married Knut, the magnates on the Swedish Council took away her political power in Sweden. On February 20, 1323 the Norwegian Council in Oslo chose Erling Vidkunsson to rule Norway as regent. Norway was not only hostile to Denmark and in conflict with England, but also war broke out with Russia over Finnmarken borders; the treasury was empty. In 1323 Russians and Karelians invaded Haslogaland. Sweden made a treaty with Russia that year, but not until 1326 did Norway and Russia agree to a ten-year truce. Haakon V’s law that the king could not come of age until he was twenty was repealed so that Magnus could begin ruling in 1332.

Magnus VII of Norway married Blanca of Namur in 1336, and as her “morning gift” she received fiefs in southern Norway. She bore him Erik in 1339 and Haakon in 1340. Nobles who considered him extravagant called the king Magnus Smek. He was born and raised in Sweden and rarely visited Norway, where the opposition party led by Erling Vidkunsson, Ivar Agnundsson, Sigurd Hafthorsson, and other barons demanded the union be dissolved. They wanted his son Haakon to rule Norway, and he eventually yielded to their demand with a royal decree in 1343 at Varberg. His older brother Erik would rule Sweden and Skane, and Haakon would become king of Norway in 1355. Haakon was proclaimed king of Norway in 1350, and Magnus continued to rule as regent. The royal seal was returned to Norway and handed to the new chancellor, Arne Aslaksson. Magnus in Sweden really only controlled Norway’s foreign policy while the Council managed domestic affairs. Their attempts to enforce tariffs provoked the Germans to attack Bergen in 1332 and 1333, but envoys from Lübeck arranged a settlement in 1341.

Norway and Sweden went to war against Denmark’s Valdemar Atterdag in 1342. The Hanseatic League aided Valdemar, and Bergen citizens killed many merchants. The 1343 Treaty of Varberg sold territory to Sweden, but Magnus confirmed Hanseatic privileges and abolished the duties that Haakon V had imposed. This gave the Hanseatic merchants control over Norway’s trade; but the land-owning farmers were doing well, and even the renters had their rights protected by laws. Roads and bridges were maintained. However, there was little education and few books other than legends and translations of romantic chivalry, though folklore and folksongs were developing. About 1350 the Hanseatic merchants began taking advantage of gunpowder, and their new sailing ships dominated Norway’s old boats.

An English merchant ship brought the Black Death to Bergen in the summer of 1349. The bubonic plague wiped out nearly half of the Norwegians and disproportionate numbers of clergy. Only one of the five bishops survived, and the number of priests was reduced from about three hundred to less than forty by 1371. Some time after the plague the Hanseatic merchants established a colony in Bergen, but they remained a distinct community and were not allowed to mingle socially or marry the townspeople. More pestilence came in 1359 and 1371, and the Norwegian economy was depleted by half. Many nobles could not sustain an aristocratic life, and by the end of the century the number of nobles had fallen from three hundred families to less than sixty. This enabled more farmers to gain their own land. Tithes and duties to churches were also diminished by half, and the royal income fell.

Haakon VI began ruling Norway at the age of 15 in 1355, but Magnus retained Vestfold and Skienssyssel while Queen Blanca held Ranafylke, Borgarsyssel, and Iceland as her dowry. In 1360 Denmark’s Valdemar seized Skane, and then he took Oland and Gotland. Haakon and the Hanseatic League formed an alliance against him, and the merchants obtained a new charter. In 1361 young Haakon quarreled with his father because he promised to cede part of the kingdom to Valdemar. Some nobles even persuaded the King to imprison his father for a while, but according to Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini most of the time Haakon was a loyal son. A few months later Haakon was made king of Sweden also to rule jointly with Magnus. In 1362 Haakon and Magnus did not side with the Hansa against Denmark, ending that alliance. In 1363 they made an agreement with Valdemar, ceding to him the provinces the Danes had seized, and Haakon married Valdemar’s ten-year-old daughter Margaret. Swedish nobles resented the deal and made Albrekt king in 1364 after deposing Magnus and Haakon. Norwegian nobles did not want to support a war for the throne of Sweden, but they raised a small army. On March 3, 1365 they were defeated at Gata. Haakon was seriously wounded but escaped to Norway. Magnus was captured and held in prison for six years until he was ransomed for 12,000 marks of silver. Magnus then resided in Norway until he drowned in a shipwreck on December 1, 1373.

Haakon favored local merchants and became an ally of Denmark’s Valdemar to resist the Germans. The Hanseatic League held its largest assembly ever at Cologne in 1367 and formed a war coalition against Denmark and Norway. One fleet ravaged Denmark, and a second fleet of six war vessels from the Netherlands attacked Norway, ravaging Lindesnes, Marstrand, Konghelle, and Ljodhus. On August 10, 1368 King Haakon agreed to a truce at Wismar until the next Easter. Norway was still under embargo, and seacoast raids violated the agreement. The League had ordered all their merchants to leave Norway before the war. The English tried to trade, but the Germans drove them away. The truce was extended, and a permanent peace was made in 1371. The Hanseatic merchants were given extensive trade privileges, and several towns and castles were ceded to them for fifteen years as an indemnity. After that Norway only received half as much in barter as they had before. Haakon invaded Sweden again and freed his father Magnus by ransom.

Under Haakon VI cities such as Oslo, Bergen, Nidaros, and Tunsberg were organized as independent communities with self-government and their own laws. Leaders in Iceland and the Orkneys were required to swear allegiance to the King. When Alexander de le Ard did not respond to a summons to Norway, Henry of St. Claire was appointed jarl of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Greenland was visited once a year, but this became inconsistent and lapsed completely after 1410. Haakon had lost the crown of Sweden to Albrekt of Mecklenburg, and he refused to recognize him. After his father died, Haakon seized provinces in Sweden that he had retained. Hostilities between Sweden and Norway continued, but the main campaign was fought just before Haakon died in 1380.

Margaret’s son Olaf had been born in 1370 and was elected king of Norway in 1376. Olaf IV was proclaimed king of Norway on Saint Olaf’s Day (July 29) in 1381. Margaret was ruling Denmark and only acted as regent when she was in Norway, but the Council delegated to her complete control over foreign policy. The rest of the time Agmund Finnsson governed as regent with the chancellor Henrik Henriksson. Olaf came of age in 1385, but he died on August 23, 1387. Seven days later Margaret was chosen to rule Denmark as queen. The Council at Oslo elected her regent in Norway while Erik of Pomerania was chosen as heir to the throne. On September 8, 1389 the Council elected 7-year-old Erik king of Norway, but Queen Margaret continued to act as regent. While she was in Denmark, many offices in Norway remained empty. Danes were appointed to high positions in the church of Norway and were resented. Norwegian lords governed the four most powerful castles at Tonsberghus, Akershus, Baahus, and Bergenshus. During Margaret’s conflict with Albrekt, the cities Rostock and Wismar sided with Albrekt, and buccaneers called the Victual Brothers robbed and plundered, sacking Bergen a second time in 1395. That year Margaret made peace with Rostock and Wismar, and Albrekt was released. The Hanseatic League tried to stop the piracy and executed hundreds, but more bands rose up. Meanwhile many Swedes and Danes and even Germans were marrying Norwegian heiresses to gain Norwegian privileges.

Scandinavia’s Kalmar Union 1397-1450
Norway 1450-1517

Iceland 1250-1400

Scandinavia 1095-1250

Iceland’s Althing voted in 1253 to give Church law precedence over civil law, but it never really took effect. After Gizur barely escaped being burned at Flugumyri, he became more aggressive. In 1254 Norway’s King Haakon IV sent Skalholt bishop Sivard to present his case to the Althing. After Thord Kakali Sighvatsson died in 1256, Haakon sent Thorgils Skardi to try to govern Iceland; but he was captured and executed by Thorvard Thorarinsson in 1258. That year, after being in Norway for four years, Gizur was made a jarl by Haakon and returned to Iceland. In 1261 it was learned that Greenland had agreed to pay tribute to Norway, and at the Althing the next year Gizur was reconciled with Hrafn as the Gizur Covenant was passed. In 1263 the Oddaverjar family and the farmers in the Rangarthing agreed to pay tribute to King Haakon, and the next year all the Icelandic leaders went along. The feuds ended when Gizur had Thord treacherously executed on September 27, 1264. The Gizur Covenant allowed administrators to collect twenty ells from each thing-tax-payer for Norway’s king, who agreed to let Icelanders enjoy their own laws under his jarl and to send six ships each summer.

The Church became independent in Iceland as canon law was established there in 1297. As story-telling developed into written histories and literature, especially in Iceland, the Latin script replaced the runes. The union with Norway developed executive authority and courts of law, ending the violent feuds between the chieftains. In 1302 Norway’s Council at Bergen decreed that only Norwegians could trade with Iceland. The next year the Icelanders at the Althing pledged their loyalty to Norway, but in their remonstrance they stated they would not answer excessive summons abroad for trial. People became discontent with the reduced commerce because of Norway’s monopoly. When a new law code came from Norway, the Althing decided to appoint only Icelanders to higher offices. In 1304 people in the western and northern districts stopped attending the Althing and organized their own local governments. King Haakon V reacted by sending Alf of Krok with letters revoking the privileges granted to Icelanders since the death of King Magnus Ladulas. When Alf took over the eastern and northern districts, the resentment increased. He traveled around declaring that those who did not attend the Althing were outlaws. The Althing decided that the people should disobey the King’s unjust demands. They drew up a covenant that stated that officials should be Icelanders and that people should not be taken to Norway for trial in cases that could be handled by lawmen in Iceland.

When the cathedral at Skalholt was burned down in 1308, Bishop Arni Helgason went to Norway and in 1310 brought back timber for rebuilding. In 1313 King Haakon V sent a letter to Iceland complaining that the Althing had not assembled for nine years, and the next year he issued a supplement to the law code. The law was modified so that fewer cases went to Norway, and the demand for new taxes was eliminated. The Althing met with full representation in 1315. When Icelandic bishops and chieftains were summoned to attend the Council at Bergen in 1320, people at the Althing refused to swear allegiance, reiterating their demands in a memorial. They did not want any more codfish exported during a famine, which they were experiencing then. As a result Ketill Thorlaksson came to Iceland with royal letters, and people took the oath of allegiance. When the new bishop of Skalholt, Grim Skutuson, spent three hundred hundrad while people were starving, many were offended and became alienated from the church.

Although feuds were fewer, violence still did occur. In 1343 monks at the Thykvaber monastery attacked Abbot Thorlak. He fled to the Videy monastery, and Bishop Jon Sigurdsson had two of the perpetrators put in chains. After the Black Death ravaged Norway in 1349, trade with Iceland decreased greatly. In 1354 Norway began farming out the tax collection in Iceland with one official over each quarter. In 1380 the government of Iceland was taken over by Denmark, and as a colony of Norway, Iceland became part of the Kalmar Union in 1397. In 1419 they pledged their allegiance to King Erik of Pomerania, but they added the demand that the promise of at least six ships per year must be fulfilled. Education outside of monasteries was limited, and by the end of the 14th century almost all the schools in Iceland had disappeared. Creativity and originality rarely produced new literature, which tended to be earlier collections and translations. A few sagas were written about Icelandic bishops in the 14th century.

Iceland 1400-1517

Icelandic Sagas: Eyrbyggja and Njal

Snorri Sturluson and His Sagas

Snorri the priest is the main character in the anonymous Eyrbyggja Saga, which was written soon after 1250. When Norway’s King Harald Fairhair summons Thorolf Mostur-Beard for sheltering the outlaw Bjorn Ketilsson, Thorolf decides to emigrate to Iceland. There Thorolf challenges and kills aging Ulfar to gain additional land, but he is wounded and called Twist-Foot after that. Thorolf’s son is named Arnkel. The Thor’s Ness Assembly is desecrated when the Kjalleklings no longer obey the prohibition of the Thorsnessings against relieving themselves on that land. Thord Gellir arbitrates the conflict and holds those who began the violence responsible but grants no compensation to either side. As the assembly field is considered defiled, the Thing (Assembly) is moved; people are not forbidden to ease themselves there. This became the West Quarter Court as Thord then established the Quarter Courts of Iceland.

The son of the priest Thorgrim is a difficult child and becomes known as Snorri, meaning turbulent. At age fourteen he travels to Norway with his brothers Thorleif Kimbi and Thorodd. Snorri has enough silver saved to pay off Bork the Stout to take possession of the estate at Helgafell. Bork’s wife Thordis divorces him for having struck her. Snorri takes charge of the temple and becomes known as the Priest. He supports Thorbjorn’s charge that Geirrid used witchcraft to harm Gunnlaug; but Geirrid’s brother Arnkel the Priest gets the case dismissed by the jury of twelve. After a feud between the Kjalleklings and the Illugi kills seven, Snorri gets them to agree to a truce. When Thorbjorn accuses Thorarin of stealing horses, the latter rushes him and kills one of Thorbjorn’s servants. Thorarin’s wife Aud gets the women to intervene by throwing clothes on the weapons; but when Thorarin learns that Aud had her hand cut off, he goes and kills Thorbjorn, taking his horses. Geirrid of Mahvalid communicates that Aud’s hand was chopped off by Odd Katlason. Arnkel and his men search Katla’s house, hang Odd, and then stone the cursing Katla. Since Thorarin could not pay compensation for all his crimes, he goes into exile. Snorri takes the case to the Assembly; Thorarin and his accomplices are declared outlaws, and their property is confiscated.

The Swedish brothers Halli and Leiknir often go berserk in a violent frenzy, and so Sweden’s King Erik gives them to Earl Hakon. Vermund takes them to Iceland; but when Halli asks for a wife, Vermund knows that no respectable woman would consent. So Vermund gives the berserks to the aggressive Styr. Having a grudge, Vigfus sends a slave to murder Snorri; but he only wounds Mar Hallvardsson and talks after being caught. Snorri and six men go and put Vigfus to death while sparing his slaves. His widow Thorgerd appeals to Styr, Vermund, and finally to Arnkel with her husband’s head. Arnkel files a suit against all but Snorri, who counter-sues for the attempt on his life and the wounding of Mar. At the Thor’s Ness Assembly the stronger Kjalleklings support Arnkel; Snorri is fined, and Mar is banished for three years. Styr makes Halli work to win a wife and then, when he is tired, kills him.

Thorodd becomes jealous that Bjorn Asbrandsson is seeing his wife Thurid and attacks him with several men; but Bjorn is able to defend himself and kills two Thorissons. Thurid is Snorri’s sister, and Snorri takes Thorodd’s case; Asbrand pays the fine, and Bjorn is exiled for three years, joining the Jomsvikings. Old Thorolf Twist-Foot quarrels with his son Arnkel over his resentment of the growing wealth of his neighbor, the slave Ulfar. Thorolf gets his slaves drunk and sends them to burn Ulfar’s house. Arnkel and his men put out the fire and hang the slaves. Ulfar then gives his property to Arnkel, making him his legal guardian. By promising him land, Thorolf persuades Snorri to sue his own son Arnkel for killing the slaves. Styr and his brother Vermund arbitrate, awarding a pound of silver for each slave. After Ulfar inherits property, Thorolf sends his friend Spa-Gils to murder and rob Ulfar. After Spa-Gils kills Ulfar, he is caught by Arnkel, confesses the plot, and is killed. The Thorbrandssons want to claim Ulfar’s property, but Snorri advises them that the stronger Arnkel would win.

When the elderly Thorolf finally dies in his chair, he begins haunting the area. Arnkel and Snorri quarrel over the land Thorolf gave Snorri. When Hauk assaults Arnkel, the latter kills him; Snorri accuses Arnkel but loses the case. An outlaw tries to murder Arnkel and is also killed by him. Finally Snorri gathers his men and the Thorbrandssons, who attack Arnkel on a haystack and kill him. The author admires Arnkel and blames his death on people’s envy. Since Arnkel’s heirs are all women, their case is so weak that only Thorleif Kimbi is outlawed. This result causes men to make a law for Iceland that women and men under sixteen are not allowed to sue in a manslaughter case.

Bjorn returns to Iceland and resumes seeing Thurid; many believe that Bjorn is the father of her son Kjartan. The Thorbrandssons send the slave Egil to the games to kill Bjorn, his brother Arnbjorn, or Thord; but Egil is captured and talks before he is killed. By law anyone killing a slave must pay the owner a pound of silver. Bjorn’s brother Steinthor leaves with sixty men to make the payment. In the battle at Alfta Fjord when his son is wounded, Snorri persuades his father-in-law Styr to change sides. After slashing at Snorri’s outstretched hand, cutting his temple ring, Steinthor is persuaded by all to agree to a truce. In a battle on ice at Vigra Fjord, all the Thorbrandssons are knocked down; but Snorri is able to heal their many wounds. Finally people of good will with Vermund arbitrating end the feud with a settlement that lasts as long as Steinthor and Snorri live. Snorri tries to kill Bjorn but is taken hostage; yet Snorri persuades Bjorn to leave Iceland.

In the last part of the Eyrbyggja Saga, Snorri persuades many Icelanders to adopt Christianity, and ghosts devastating the land are eventually made to leave by the door-court. Prayers of the new religion purify the country. Yet the Viking Ospak still plunders and kills with his band of outlaws, stealing whale meat from landowners claiming it. Snorri gathers enough men to attack their stronghold. Ospak is killed by Sturla, and the others surrender when promised their lives. As Snorri becomes older, he gains popularity and alliances with the marriages of his children before dying in 1031. Walter Scott considered Eyrbyggja the most interesting saga. It depicts the struggle between the Viking violence and the development of law and even democracy in Iceland as warriors fight for power and property with weapons and lawsuits. Gradually Christianity takes root as feudal revenge diminishes, and more peaceful ways are learned.

A short Icelandic saga from the 13th century is Hrafnkel the Priest of Frey. Hrafnkel is 15 when his family moves to Iceland. He builds his own home, marries, and takes over the priesthood at Adalbol. He is very aggressive and forces the Jokulsdalers to become his retainers. Hrafnkel never pays for any of his violations but fights numerous single combats instead. After killing Einar for riding his stallion against his orders, Hrafnkel refuses to treat Einar’s father Thorbjorn as his equal and will not accept arbitration. Sam takes Thorbjorn’s case and gets backing from Thorkel and his brother Thorgein so that Hrafnkel is declared an outlaw at the assembly. Thorgeir and Sam each gather forty men to capture Hrafnkel and his men. Thorgeir offers Hrafnkel the choice of quick death or loss of his home. So Hrafnkel moves to the east. He kills Eyvind and his men, fleeing from Sam and his men; but when Hrafnkel gathers his men, he gives Sam the choice of death or leaving Adalbol. Hrafnkel returns to his land, and this time Thorgeir will not take on Hrafnkel for Sam, who goes home. Hrafnkel eventually dies of illness and passes his authority on to his sons.

The Saga of Gunnlaugg Snake-tongue has a more romantic theme. Thorstein is the son of the poet Egil Skallagrimsson. When his dream bodes ill if his wife Jofrid has a daughter, he orders her to expose the baby if it is a girl; but Jofrid secretly sends her baby to be brought up by Thorstein’s sister Thorgerd. Thorstein learns of his daughter Helga six years later and takes her home. Gunnlaug at 12 asks his father Illugi the Black for a ship but is refused. So Gunnlaug leaves home, lives with Thorstein, and falls in love with Helga. The anonymous author refers to Iceland’s conversion to Christianity as the best thing that ever happened there. Gunnlaug pledges his troth to Helga but is allowed three years of travel on a ship his father now gives him. Gunnlaug recites poetry for kings; but his snake-tongue insults Earl Haakon, and he has to leave Norway.

King Ethelred of England gives Gunnlaug a scarlet cloak; but after Thororm refuses to pay back a loan, Gunnlaug fights and kills him on an island. Gunnlaug visits Earl Sigurd in the Orkneys and King Olaf in the Swedish court, where he quarrels with Hrafn over poetry. Hrafn goes back to Iceland and courts Helga; when Gunnlaug does not return within the three years, he marries her. Gunnlaug gives Helga the scarlet cloak, and she loves him more than Hrafn. Gunnlaug challenges Hrafn to fight on an island; but their fathers stop it when Gunnlaug is wounded as Hrafn’s sword breaks. They plan to meet again on an island in Norway. Finally in a fight their comrades are killed, and Hrafn treacherously wounds Gunnlaug during a water break. Gunnlaug then kills Hrafn but dies three days later. Hrafn’s father Onund refuses to pay Illugi for his son’s breaking the truce. Illugi kills a kinsmen of Onund and chops off the foot of another. Gunnlaug’s brother Hermund also kills another kinsman named Hrafn. As predicted by the dream interpretation, Helga marries again and has children; but she loved Gunnlaug most and dies clinging to the scarlet cloak in her husband’s arms.

Also anonymous, Njal’s Saga was written about 1280 after Iceland had lost its independence to Norway. Mord Fiddle betroths his daughter Unn to Hrut, who travels to the court of Norwegian king Harald Greycloak and has a secret affair with Queen Gunnhild. She helps Hrut gain his inheritance but casts the spell that he may have his way with other women but not with his betrothed. After Hrut’s divorce at the law assembly, Mort demands that Unn’s dowry be returned; but Hrut challenges to single combat the older Mort, who refuses to fight and is derided. Hoskuld Dala-Kollsson marries his daughter Hallgerd to Thorvald Osvifsson without her permission, and Hrut predicts bad luck. Hallgerd is demanding and prodigal; they quarrel, and Thorvald strikes her. So Hallgerd gets her foster-father Thjostolf to kill Thorvald. When Osvif demands compensation for his son from Hoskuld, Hrut’s arbitration awards him 240 ounces of silver.

Thorarin Ragi’s-Brother, who was Law-speaker from 950 to 969, marries his brother Glum to Hallgerd; but this time Hoskuld gets Hallgerd’s permission, and they are happy until they quarrel over the irritating Thjostolf, who kills Glum also. However, Hrut soon gains revenge by killing Thjostolf. After Mort dies, Unn spends most of her inherited estate and goes to Gunnar Hamundarson to recover her father’s money from Hrut. Gunnar follows clever advice from Njal, tricking Hrut into being summoned to the law-court, where Gunnar challenges Hrut to single combat. Hoskuld advises Hrut to pay, and Gunnar gives all the money to Unn. She marries Valgerd the Grey without consulting anyone. Njal betroths his son Helgi to Thorhalla. Gunnar and his brother Kolskegg go raiding for booty and defeat many Vikings. A Dane leads them to a hoard of gold and silver, and Gunnar is welcomed by Denmark king Harald Gormsson and in Norway by the ruling Earl Haakon. Returning to the Iceland Assembly (Althing), Gunnar meets and marries Hallgerd despite Njal’s warning. At the same time Hallgerd’s daughter Thorgerd weds Thrain.

The haughty Hallgerd orders her servant Kol to murder Njal’s servant Svart, and at the Althing Gunnar has to pay Njal twelve ounces of silver. Njal’s wife Bergthora hires a laborer named Atli to kill Kol, and Gunnar has Njal pay him back the twelve ounces. Hallgerd then gets her unruly kinsman Brynjolf to kill Atli with an ax. Brynjolf reports it to prevent a charge of secret murder. Njal asks for 120 ounces of silver, and Gunnar pays him. Njal’s wife Bergthora then orders Thord, who was foster-father of their sons, to kill Brynjolf, which he does in a fair fight. Again Njal pays back the 120 ounces to Gunnar, who sends Kolskegg to warn Njal that Thord is in danger. Next Hallgerd gets Gunnar’s kinsman Sigmund and his rough Swedish companion Skjold to kill Thord with her son Thrain present. For this Njal demands and is paid 240 ounces by Gunnar. After Sigmund composes insulting verses about Njal’s sons, Skarp-Hedin and his brothers Grim and Helgi attack and kill Sigmund and Skjold. Hallgerd nags Gunnar about demanding compensation, but he lets three Althings (years) pass. Then Njal pays Gunnar 240 ounces for Sigmund but nothing for Skjold.

During a famine Otkel refuses to sell food to Gunnar but does sell him the slave Melkolf. However, Gunnar’s friend Njal gives him food. Hallgerd threatens to kill Melkolf if he does not steal food from his former master, and he also burns the shed and kills the dog. Gunnar goes and tells Otkel what his wife and slave did, offering to settle. Otkel sends Samkel to ask advice of Gizur the White and Geir the Priest. They recommend settlement; but Stamkel reports that they do not, and so Otkel summons Gunnar and Hallgerd for theft. Gunnar offers self-judgment; when Gizur learns what happened, Gunnar awards himself damages equal to the value of the house and contents destroyed. While Gunnar is working in his field, Otkel rides his horse into him, and Stamkel derides Gunnar. Later Gunnar and his brother Kolskegg attack and kill eight men, including Otkel, Stamkel, Hallbjorn, Audolf, and Hallkel. When charged with manslaughter at the Althing, Njal advises Gunnar to plead that he had declared Otkel an outlaw for the wound; but Gunnar has to pay compensation for the other men.

Gunnar dreams he is attacked by wolves. When ambushed, he and his men kill fourteen men while only Hjort on their side dies. Gunnar declares them outlaws and again follows Njal’s legal counsel. Starkad owes Njal money, and Njal gives that to Gunnar to pay his compensation. Njal believes that laws build up the country, but lawlessness tears it down. Two Thorgeirs and others have to pay him large amounts for conspiring to kill Gunnar. Later Thorgeir Otkelsson tries to ambush Gunnar but is killed by him; but Gizur proves that previously Gunnar had assaulted Thorgeir there, and so Gunnar and Kolskegg have to pay compensation and leave Iceland for three years. After falling from his horse, Gunnar decides to stay; he is declared an outlaw. Mord leads forty men in an attack on his house after his dog is killed. Gunnar kills two and wounds sixteen, but eventually he is killed. In revenge Gunnar’s son Hogni and Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin kill four men and make Mord pay full compensation. Kolskegg, who did go into exile, is baptized in Denmark, and ends up in the Varangian guard at Constantinople, where he marries.

Thrain Sigfusson goes to Norway and kills the Viking Kol. Njal’s sons Grim and Helgi also go abroad and fight in the Orkneys with Earl Sigurd and Kari. An exiled murderer from Iceland named Hrapp makes more trouble and is declared an outlaw in Norway too by Earl Haakon. Thrain manages to hide Hrapp on his ship Vulture, and the Njalssons are arrested for knowing of it; but Kari and Haakon’s son Erik get them released. Back in Iceland, Helgi asks Thrain for compensation but is insulted. Kari and the Njalssons attack eight men, killing Thrain and Hrapp but sparing Grani Gunnarsson and three others. Njal pays the entire reparation, and there is peace for a while. Thrain’s son Hoskuld is adopted by Njal and wants to marry Starkad’s daughter Hildigunn, who does not agree until Njal manages to get Hoskuld made a chieftain-priest. Njal’s own son Hoskuld is killed by Lyting, and the chieftain Hoskuld persuades Njal to accept 240 ounces as compensation. The astute Njal is eager to accept Christianity, and Iceland is quickly converted to the new religion. Somehow the blind Amundi manages to revenge his father Hoskuld’s death by killing Lyting.

Mord’s father Valgerd defies the new religion and, before he dies, urges his son to destroy Njal’s family. Mord uses slander to persuade the Njalssons to murder the chieftain-priest Hoskuld. Hildigunn goads her uncle Flosi to take vengeance for Hoskuld’s death. Thorhall Asgrimsson as the foster-son of Njal learned law from him and gets the case invalidated, because Mort, who gave notice, was an assailant in the killing of Hoskuld. Flosi agrees to arbitration by six men from each side, and Snorri the Priest sets a large compensation, of which the arbitrators pay half; but when Njal’s son Skarp-Hedin insults Flosi as being used like a woman, Flosi demands blood vengeance instead. Flosi realizes that his side can not defeat them with weapons, and so they set fire to Njal’s house. Njal’s son Helgi comes out and is killed by Flosi; but Kari manages to escape by dowsing his burning clothes in a stream. Njal, his wife Bergthora, and all their sons die in the fire.

Kari wants revenge and goes to Mord Valdgardsson to gather forces. Asgrim gets Gizur the White to help. Flosi gives the lawyer Eyjolf Bolverksson a gold bracelet to represent his case. Snorri the Priest will not go to the Althing but tells Gizur that he will keep Flosi’s side from retreating to a strong position. Mord charges Flosi with Helgi’s death, and others are accused of burning Njal and his household. Eyjolf tries various legal maneuvers, most of which are countered by advice from Thorhall, who is laid up at home with a boil on his leg. Eyjolf is accused of accepting the bribe from Flosi, who is convicted in the Fifth Court; but finally Eyjolf has the case invalidated by the technicality that Mort neglected to dismiss six jurors. The angry Thorhall slashes the boil on his leg and kills Flosi’s kinsman Grim the Red, instigating the battle at the Althing. Even Law-speaker Skapti has his legs wounded, and Kari slays Eyjolf with a spear. Snorri’s forces and Skapti manage to separate the sides and arrange a truce during the Althing. Snorri persuades most to accept arbitration, but Kari refuses. Some killings cancel out each other. Njal is paid triple compensation and his wife and sons Grim and Heldi double. Flosi and the Burners are given three years to leave the country; but Eyjolf gets no compensation because he was dishonest.

Kari gives his property to Thorgeir Skorar-Geir and his wife Helga, daughter of Njal. Kari goes after and kills several of the Burners. Flosi sails to the Orkney Islands and tells Earl Sigurd that he killed his retainer Helgi; but Thorstein persuades Sigurd to accept a settlement and make Flosi his retainer. Sigurd and Flosi attack Irish king Brian with King Sigtrygg. Brian and his sons are killed; but Sigtrygg flees, and Brian’s killer Brodir is captured and put to death with his men. Eventually Flosi returns to Iceland and fulfills the settlement. Kari’s wife Helga dies before he comes back to Iceland. Kari is reconciled with Flosi and marries his niece Hildigunn, and they have three sons.

In this saga Njal’s wisdom and legal skill is not able to prevent much violence that is instigated by women as well as men. The events reveal the strange mixture of vengeful feuds and legal trials that were used to resolve the many conflicts in Iceland at that time.

Copyright © 2009 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book Medieval Europe 1250-1400.
For information on ordering click here.


Crusaders and Byzantine Decline 1250-1400
Eastern Europe 1250-1400
Catholic Ethics 1250-1350
German Empire 1250-1400
Scandinavia 1250-1400
Castile, Aragon, Granada, and Portugal 1250-1400
Italian City States 1250-1400
Dante and Marsilius
Petrarca and Boccaccio
Low Countries and Burgundy 1250-1400
France and National War 1250-1400
England, Scotland, and Ireland 1250-1400
Mystics, Wyclif, Gower, and Chaucer
Summary and Evaluation


World Chronology 750-1300
World Chronology 1300-1400
Chronology of Europe to 1400

BECK index