The Norse Discovery of America, by A.M Reeves, N.L. Beamish and R.B. Anderson, , at sacred-texts.com
We have now seen how Icelandic historical literature, after having blossomed and borne good fruit, began at last to wither and decay; and the cause of its origin and bloom leads us also to the cause of its decline and extinction. The old state of society had called forth individual action and heroic deeds, and awakened a feeling for their representation; but now the power of the petty chief over his Thingmen had become diminished, and the equilibrium had been removed from amongst the chieftains themselves. Already in the beginning of the 11th century had Gudmund the Powerful one hundred servants at his farm, and he was accustomed to travel through his district like a petty king, with a retinue of thirty men, to judge the disputes of his Thingmen. He did not, however, venture to combat the general dissatisfaction caused by the increased expense to the individuals where he lodged, which this practice occasioned, and eventually contented himself with six attendants. As long as public opinion had so much weight, the voice of the Saga was also influential, but when powerful families intermarried, their influence invariably increased as well as the number of their followers and constituents. In the beginning of the 12th century Haflide Marson had a dispute with Thorgill Oddeson, and rode to the Thing with 1200 men, while 700 accompanied his antagonist. No individual yeoman could oppose such an armament, either with
his own force or that of his kinsmen, and the field of domestic narrative was therefore reduced from the multiplicity of characters and events which the time of the colonists brought forth, to the more serious feuds of a few powerful chiefs.
From the middle of the 12th century all power and influence was divided between the three warlike sons of Sturle--the historian--Snorre, Thord, and Sigvat. Avarice, ambition, and revenge generated implacable hatred between these, and brought on the destruction of their race; and the history of the independent age of Iceland may be said to end with the feuds of this family, which lasted one hundred years, and gave to that period the name of "the time of the Sturlungers" (Sturlungatiden). Although the history of this period has been written in a good style, with the greatest accuracy, and rare impartiality by an eye-witness and participator in the events--Sturle Thordson; notwithstanding the much more important occurrences which are here narrated, as compared with the former periods, and which, it might therefore be supposed, would awaken greater interest,--the Sturlunga Saga does not present that attraction to the reader which is afforded by the narratives of less important periods.
Mere numerical force, and not the personal strength or ability of the individual now determined the result. The question was no longer about defending a cause at the Court, but assembling an army; the old thirst for revenge had not vanished, but honourable feeling had given place to treachery, and the power of numbers. No distinguished individual appeared whose deeds could awaken sympathy. Snorre Sturleson was talented and eloquent, but at the same time ambitious, avaricious, and not very celebrated for his
personal prowess; his nephew, Sturle Sigvatson, was full of energy, but imperious, violent, and faithless; Kolbein the younger, and Gissur, authors of Snorre's murder, were only clever partisans; Thord Kakal, who revenged the fall of the Sturlungers, awakened more sympathy, but he did not possess energy enough either to overcome his enemies or sincerity enough to be reconciled to them, and hastened the submission of the island to Norway
The submission of the Icelanders to the sway of the Norwegian Kings was a natural consequence of these domestic dissensions; there was no end to the wars of the chiefs; not a single house, as formerly, was burned down, but whole provinces were laid waste. The chiefs themselves also looked to Norway for assistance as well as to their bishops, who were dependant on the see of Throndhjem; Hakon Hakonson well knew how to avail himself of this internal weakness, and hastening on a crisis, which was the necessary consequence of the natural course of events, secured the allegiance of the island in 1261.
Thus did all the noble sentiments generated by equal laws, an independent position, high descent and intellectual endowment, sink beneath the angry and narrow-minded conflicts of private interest and personal animosity. Party feeling,--that curse of a nation,--fell upon the land; the Norwegian monarch, availing himself of the weakness which ever accompanies disunion, accomplished the subjection of the island, and as in a more southern and greener isle, the intestine dissensions of his own excited sons affixed the badge of vassalage upon Iceland!
What theme could now animate the lyric muse, or give interest and distinction to the annals of the historian? The flame of discord lighted by the chiefs, and fanned into destructive
extension by the Norwegian King, had carried with it the last spark of freedom from the exhausted land, and with freedom fled the spirit which had breathed life into the songs of the Skalds and given force and character to the records of the Saga!
After a short time the Sagas ceased to be produced, for nothing occurred that was worthy of being committed to writing; the dry annalist alone could fill his note book with the successions of Lagmen or chief magistrates, the weddings of the chiefs, law suits, and solitary deeds of violence, or more destructive still, with details of the ravages of the pestilential diseases which now spread death and desolation throughout the land.
But even more injurious to the historical literature of Iceland than these depopulating effects was the taste for romance which arose about this period, and weakened the feeling for pure history. We have already seen that in the 12th century, fabulous or poetical ornament was given to historical narrative, in order to increase the gratification of the hearer; and by such embellished adventures Sturle Thordson obtained so much favour with Magnus Lagebæter; but so long as real acts of heroism were performed, and recorded, and the Sagas were connected with the songs of the Skalds and the genealogy of families, such narratives justly attained the preference; it was otherwise, however, when the public interest in domestic events had subsided, or rather when the altered condition of society produced nothing to call it forth, and the romances of chivalry were opened like a new world before the admiring eyes of the Icelanders. This was particularly apparent in the reign of Hakon Hakonson, by whose orders several of the most popular foreign romances were translated into Icelandic.
[paragraph continues] To these may be added the copious Vilkina Saga, a romance of Didrik of Bern and his champions, which was probably written by Icelanders in Bergen in the 14th century from the narratives of Hanseatic merchants.
The passion for hearing and reading foreign romances injured historical literature in two ways; first, by corrupting the pure taste for true history; and secondly, by leading many to exaggerate, and deck out facts with imaginative features borrowed from these fables. Public interest in the history of the neighbouring countries also ceased to be longer entertained; some considerable properties fell to the Norwegian crown; the riches of the chiefs passed away, and the island sank fast into an abject and unimportant condition. Journeys to foreign courts, and consequently the knowledge of foreign events became more rare; the complimentary verses of the subject poet to his monarch were naturally less valued than those sung by the travelling bard in honour of a stranger king; they were no longer liberally rewarded, and soon both Skald and Sagaman; ceased to sing and to narrate. With good reason therefore does Torfæus observe that Hakon Hakonson, by subjecting Iceland, left a larger kingdom to his successors, but at the same time diminished their glory by depriving them of the men who could have immortalized their name.
In the 14th and 15th centuries the voyages of the Icelanders altogether ceased. The stranger who landed on their coast, unlike the old skipper of wide experience and goodly lineage and connexion, was now the paltry trader or ordinary seaman from whom little could be learned; and if an Icelander went abroad, he found himself a stranger in Scandinavia. In the course of the 13th century, the old language, by mixture with the German, and a careless
manner of speaking, had become quite altered in Denmark, and the same change appeared in the following century in Norway, these two languages becoming nearly similar; so that the old Danske Tunge, together with the Saga, was no longer heard in Scandinavia, while in remote Iceland the ancient songs of the Skalds, and stories of the Sagamen, secured its preservation there.
Thus separated from the rest of the world, as well by language as locality, the Icelanders could only gratify their taste for reading in the books of their own country. The value of oral tradition, and therewith its power had gradually diminished and died away as books and reading became more general; but the old supply of true and poetical narratives became corrupted by legends of foreign and native saints, adventures with ghosts and spirits, and traditions from foreign romances, which were written in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Meantime the feeling for the old Saga was still kept alive by historical songs (Rimar) and the labours of the genealogist; the latter has been a favourite pursuit with Icelanders in all ages, and by these means have the principal families been enabled to trace their descent, from the 10th and 11th centuries, with far greater accuracy than the most ancient nobility of the rest of Europe. The Rimar had much resemblance to the Champion songs (Kæmpe viser), traces of which are to be found in the Sturlunga Saga, and which were composed in great numbers in the following century. Of the seventy-eight Icelandic poets that are enumerated by Einarm, as having flourished from the Reformation to the end of the 18th century, the greater number have composed such rhymes, and in many of these the old traditions are included.
In the 16th century still fewer Sagas were written than in the 15th, not so much because people began to get acquainted with printed works, which took place slowly, but because the Reformation at first operated against the reading of Sagas: they were said to contain Popery.
It was, therefore, fortunate for history that from the 17th century the attention of the literati, both in Sweden and Denmark, was turned to the importance of Icelandic manuscripts. Arngrim Johnson, author of Crymogæa, assisted by King Christian IV. of Denmark (1643), collected several of them, and Bishop Brynjulf Svendson sent some of the most important Icelandic codices to Frederic III. (1670), who was a zealous promoter of all intellectual advancement. The Icelander Rugman who, taken prisoner in the wars of Charles X. of Sweden, had awakened the attention of the Swedish literati to the literary treasures of his own country, was sent to the island in 1661 to purchase manuscripts for the Antiquarian Museum of Stockholm, and many were afterwards sent thither on the same errand; but Christian V. of Denmark, whose dominion, including Norway, extended to Iceland, issued a prohibition in 1685 against any manuscripts being disposed of to strangers, nor was it until the eminent antiquary Professor Arnas Magnussen was placed at the head of a royal commission in Iceland, which carried on its labours with unwearied assiduity from 1702 to 1712, that the remaining manuscripts were collected and lodged in the libraries of Copenhagen.